Is your diet related to your personality?

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A new study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production explores food choices in the context of the Big Five personality traits in the United States and Norway.

Herein, the researchers conducted an online survey of personality traits, socioeconomic status, and food choices. Norway and the U.S. were chosen for comparison due to the significantly different scales of biotechnology, farming, and farm support, varying patterns of food consumption, and import rules between these two notions.

Study: Food values and personality traits in the United States and Norway. Image Credit: My Ocean Production / Shutterstock.com Study: Food values and personality traits in the United States and Norway. Image Credit: My Ocean Production / Shutterstock.com

Introduction

Personality traits, which are measures of how an individual thinks, feels, and acts, have been classified in various ways, including the Big Five Inventory (BFI). The BFI comprises being open to experience, conscientious, extraverted, agreeable, and neurotic (OCEAN).

OCEAN has been linked to how an individual behaves about food and food choices. These include attitudes to food from the production level onward.

Earlier research indicated that being open and agreeable is related to making better dietary choices and food sustainability. In contrast, neuroticism and extraversion were more often linked to poor food choices.

Overall attitudes to food have been conjectured to be directly associated with food choices regarding safety, nutritional status, natural state, environmental impact, convenience, origin, fairness, traditional food values, taste and appearance, and price. These resemble the ten fundamental human values described by Schwartz, some of which include benevolence, conformity, hedonism, security, power, and self-direction.

Prior studies have demonstrated that U.S. consumers put safety first, followed by cost, taste, health, and nutrition, which remain stable across a spectrum of meat products and milk. Notably, these respondents did not put much value on animal welfare, environmental health, food origin, or convenience.

In Norway, safety continued to top the list of preferences in such studies, whereas price was considered the sixth most important factor in food decisions.

Locally produced food promotes biodiversity, protects animal welfare, and boosts resilience. Conversely, globally produced products are more affordable.

Meat products help boost nutritional quality in countries where less land is available for grains and pasture cultivation; however, ruminant farming increases carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Notably, meat farming practices are more sustainable in these countries as compared to the carbon footprint of importing vegetarian food products on a large enough scale.

What did the study show?

The researchers identified six segments based on personality traits and socioeconomic characteristics that were linked to the values predicting food choices.  

Both Norway and the U.S. were found to have people belonging to different segments, including health, altruistic, rational, and hedonistic segments. Norwegian, rather than U.S. subjects, also belonged to natural and welfare segments. Conversely, two unique U.S. segments, including safety and indeterminate, were identified.

Overall shares

Safety, Health, and Altruism accounted for about 20% of the respondents. Comparatively, the Rational and Hedonistic segments were smaller at about 15% each. Among the 12 food values, safety was first place, with 74% of respondents citing it as a dominant value.

The Health segment comprised respondents who valued safety, followed by nutrition, natural food, and taste. Similarly, the Altruism segment, in which people primarily focused on food safety, also wanted natural food with a mild environmental impact, in addition to valuing animal welfare and justice.

In the Rational segment, respondents chose foods based on taste and price, putting twice as much weight on these factors as compared to food safety.

The Natural segment included respondents who valued food origin, as indicated by their intense dislike for genetically modified (G.M.) food, natural food, and safety. The Welfare segment, which was primarily focused on animal welfare data, comprised 12% of respondents.

The Hedonistic segment comprised 10% of respondents and preferred taste over safety at whatever price or inconvenience. This segment was chosen to be the reference segment for comparison purposes.

Socioeconomic characteristics and food choices

As compared to the Hedonistic segment, females outnumbered males in Safety, Health, Altruistic, or Rational segments.

Those with a university education were three times as prominent in the Health segment and twice as common in the Altruistic or Rational segments. Similarly, those with a university education were 60% less likely to be in the Rational segment.

Those with a high income were twice as likely to be in the Health segment.

The welfare segment reduced with age, with a decline in membership odds by 4% each year. Older respondents were less indeterminate in their preferences at 5% less each year but were 3% more likely to be in the Rational segment with each additional year.

People connected with a farm-based lifestyle were four times more likely to be in the Natural segment and twice as likely to be in the Altruistic segment than in the Hedonistic segment. These individuals were also twice as likely to be in the Indeterminate segment.

How personality affects food choices

With more openness to new experiences, Welfare or Altruistic membership odds rose by over 60% for every standard deviation (S.D.) rise. Likewise, agreeableness increased by 50% for every S.D. rise in Natural, Welfare, or Altruistic segments.

Extraversion was related inversely to Welfare or Altruism, with a 30% drop in membership odds with each S.D. rise.

U.S. vs. Norway

U.S. consumers were more concerned about food safety, which dominated in one Norwegian and four U.S. segments. Food prices were less determinative in Norway, likely due to greater economic parity. Conversely, both Rational and Hedonistic segments were primarily focused on the cost of their food products.

About 17% of respondents in the U.S. who comprised the Indeterminate segment did not value any specific food value above others.

Safety remains a top priority in almost all segments, corroborating earlier research. Fairness was also an important value in Norway, while both countries reflected naturalness, environmental costs, and animal suffering as their top values. 

Rational consumers value taste and price twice as much as safety in Norway; however, this was not true in the U.S., where price and safety are the greatest concerns in this segment. Rational consumers were also highly focused on animal welfare, whereas taste was not a top priority.

Neuroticism was unrelated to food values in either country. However, in Norway, those with greater relish for new things were more likely to be in the Altruistic segment, which cared about safety and animal welfare along with getting natural and sustainable food and maintaining justice.

Recent studies have shown that this type of openness is accompanied by a willingness to pay for organic food. In the U.S., such openness is more associated with Health or Rational segments.

These people were also more likely to be in the Welfare segment in Norway, a segment not found in the U.S. Extraversion was shown in this study and some previous research to be linked to Hedonistic food values in Norway, but not in the U.S.

What are the implications?

The definition of each segment based on personality characteristics and socioeconomic attributes is important and may facilitate the marketing of sustainability-based foods. Such segments include consumers who are regardful of environmental sustainability, justice, and animal welfare.

Most of the influence of personality traits was linked to openness to experience and agreeableness, which favors value on societal benefits rather than hedonistic appetites.

Such recognition of food-personality relationships may help sell sustainable food to more people by creating positive attitudes, the intention to purchase, and actual purchase.

To encourage consumption of more sustainable food alternatives, sustainability messages can be targeted at individuals who score high on extraversion and low on openness or agreeableness.”

Online behavior agrees well with personality traits, making it possible to target sales to potential consumers based on such traits.

Journal reference:
  • Ardebili, A. T. & Rickertsen, K. (2023). Food values and personality traits in the United States and Norway. Journal of Cleaner Production. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2023.137310.
Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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