After dinner at your friend’s house, your friend says, “Why don’t you have some more cake? I baked it myself from scratch—and it’s chocolate, your favorite.”

You’re full after one delicious slice, but how can you say no to seconds when your friend put in all that effort? You don’t want to hurt her feelings…so you accept that second slice.

And that, my friends, is why being a “people-pleaser” is a recipe for weight gain. In fact, a new study from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland reinforces that concept, revealing how our friends, family members and colleagues influence what we eat a lot more than we may think.

But if you’re a people-pleaser, don’t worry. There are strategies that you can use to combat this peer pressure and speak up so you can slim down.


In the study, researchers gave 101 male and female college students a questionnaire to measure their people-pleasing characteristics (such as how much they worried about hurting other people’s feelings, whether they put others’ needs first and how sensitive they were to criticism). Next, each student sat down with an actor who was pretending to be another participant in the study. The actor took a small handful from a bowl of M&Ms and offered it to the student, asking “Would you like some?”—thereby encouraging the subject to partake of the fattening food.

Afterward, researchers questioned the students about how much they took and ate and why. And what they found was this—the higher that a student had scored on the people-pleasing questionnaire, the more likely that he or she would take the same amount of candies as the actor took. And the lower a student scored on the people-pleasing questionnaire, the less likely that he or she took the same amount of candies as the actor took. These findings were published this past February in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.


To find out why some subjects were so prone to follow someone else’s lead, I called lead author Julie J. Exline, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the university. “If you’re a people-pleaser and you sense that another person wants you to eat, you’re likely to eat, because you’re afraid to rock the boat,” she said. Your main goal, in other words, is to maintain social harmony—even if the cost of doing so is an expanding waistline—and many people may not even realize that they’re doing this, Dr. Exline added.


Do you hate letting others down? Do you fear disagreement or disapproval? If so, you may be a people-pleaser, and you may need to give yourself a pep talk before going to that next party, dinner, picnic or other social outing. “The first step is recognizing that you may be especially vulnerable to peer pressure,” said Dr. Exline. “Remind yourself that if you cave in, you are apt to regret it later.”

Next, she said, whenever you are eating around other people, it’s a good idea to consciously ask yourself whether you would be taking your next bite because you truly want it…or because you think that someone else wants you to.

If it’s the latter, then you can compromise (if you feel you must)—for example, accept the piece of birthday or anniversary cake for its symbolic value, but then eat only a bite or two and put the rest aside so you’re not tempted to eat more. That’s entirely acceptable socially!

Or, of course, you can decline—just do it artfully so you won’t hurt the other person’s feelings and then you’ll have nothing to feel guilty about. For example, if your colleague keeps offering you homemade cookies, you might say, “Thank you so much—these look great, but I’m on a diet right now, so unfortunately, I’ll have to pass” or “I’m so full from lunch that I couldn’t eat any more right now, but I appreciate the offer.”