When Scientists Act Like Jerks, Asian-Americans Reach for a Hamburger

By Veronique Greenwood | May 15, 2011 3:14 pm


What’s the News: Fitting in is a perennial problem for almost everybody, especially immigrants and their children (for more, see The Joy Luck Club). And anxiety about food is definitely part of it: when your friends think your mom’s home cooking is weird, well, maybe you’ll just pretend you don’t like it either. In fact, maybe you’ll eat more French fries and pizza than is entirely healthy to fit in, something that might explain why newly arrived immigrants balloon to the rest of the U.S. population’s levels of obesity in just 15 years. In a study designed to see how being perceived as un-American changed peoples’ food choices, scientists behaved badly and then brought out the menus.

How the Heck:

  • “Do you speak English?” scientists asked half of the participants, who were Asian-American and white college students, in order to make them feel self-conscious about their status as Americans. (This question provokes what psychologists call “stereotype threat.”) They then asked them all to write down their favorite food. Asian-Americans who’d been asked if they spoke English were three times as likely to write down American foods like hamburgers or pizza as those who hadn’t been. White students wrote down the same kinds of foods either way.
  • But did people actually change their eating habits to seem more American? To test this, in separate experiment researchers told Asian-American students to order whatever they liked from local Asian and American restaurants. But they dropped a bomb on some: “Actually, you have to be an American to be in this study.”
  • The subjects who had their American identities threatened indeed ordered and ate dishes that were more classically American—hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, BLTs, mac and cheese—than those who hadn’t. (And in case you were wondering, the researchers had a separate group of Asian Americans and white people classify how “American” or “Asian” certain foods are—so when they say hamburgers are American, there’s real science behind it.)
  • When researchers tallied up the calories each group ate, Asian-Americans who’d been threatened had eaten a whopping 182 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 7 grams of saturated fat more than those who hadn’t been threatened.
  • This lends credence to the idea that anxiety about fitting in leads immigrants and their children to eat more calories and thus, unfortunately, develop the same health problems as the rest of the American population.

The Future Holds: A readjustment of what people think “American” food really is, the researchers hope. Ironically, they point out, the white students, who embodied the prototypical American identity the others were aiming for, didn’t eat nearly as much American food as Asian-Americans who felt threatened.

“Hopefully, such efforts will become less necessary,” the researchers write, “as U.S. society broadens its definition of what is considered American food and who is considered American—so that Asian Americans eating sushi or kimchi will one day raise no more suspicion that they are foreign than do white Americans eating hamburgers and French fries.”

Reference: Guendelman, M., Cheryan, S. & Monin, B. Fitting in but getting fat: Identity threat as an explanation for dietary decline among U.S. immigrant groups. Psychological Science, June issue.

Image credit: jeffreyw/flickr

  • http://www.automobiliu-nuoma.eu Brandon

    American scientists really don’t care what we eat.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    “Do you speak English?”

    usually it’s a boomer or someone older telling me how i barely have an accent :-)

  • Matunos

    Unambiguously white guy here, and I love America as much as the next guy, but I’ll keep wishing for more Asian restaurants near my office.

  • beanfeast

    I’m sure there are plenty of Italians out there who will dispute pizza being American food.

  • TacoBean

    “I’m sure there are plenty of Italians out there who will dispute pizza being American food.”

    American pizza is different than Italian pizza.

  • http://NotionsCapital.com Mike Licht

    “Somebody Give Me a Cheeseburger.”
    — Steve Miller, “Living in the USA” (1968)

  • http://www.8asians.com John

    I was getting my passport renewed at the U.S. passport office in San Francisco and a white couple asked me, after we were chatting a little bit, if I was there to get my citizenship … I was born and raised in Massachusetts and don’t have any accent at all … You don’t get your citizenship at a U.S. passport office.

  • Archwright

    An alternate title could be “Scientist prove what sociologists have known for years.”

    This study brings up another important question: why is “American” food so damn unhealthy?

    Funny story, when I went to a Starbucks in Taipei, Taiwan and ordered a flavored coffee drink they asked me if I wanted it prepared the Taiwanese way or the American way. Curious, I asked what the difference was. They replied that they put twice to three times the sugar syrup into the American version, depending on the drink.

  • John Lerch

    This report didn’t mention whether the Asian students who were “threatened” ate the extra calories whether they chose the American food or not. I.E. the extra calories merely may have been response to the stress rather than switching preferences. IOW if so, this piece could have been called (should have been called?) When Scientists Act Like Jerks, Asian-Americans Reach for COMFORT FOOD. Put another way the old saw should read “An hour after I eat Chinese food, I let myself feel stressed out again.”

  • For a bunch of smart people

    Just a heads up for everyone here that keeps saying “America”:

    AMERICA = spans 2 continents, a ton of little islands, and many many different countries

    USA = the only country in America that thinks IT IS America.

    Discover Magazine, smart people reading here right? *dips head in disappointment*

    Congrats “America”.

  • Debbie G

    @ “For a bunch of smart people”
    This is the best made point of all. And yes, I was guilty too. Thank you for reminding me how egocentric I/we can become sometimes…and no, that was not meant sarcastically.

  • Ron

    “Scientist prove what sociologists have known for years.”

    Oh puh-leeze. There are a jillion “obvious facts” that have been proven wrong once someone actually investigates.

    “AMERICA = spans 2 continents, a ton of little islands, and many many different countries”

    The USA as a country came first. That’s why we got to choose our nickname first.

  • George

    It wasn’t that the scientists were jerks, they were just being bad scientists. They would have discovered that if they had replaced the statement “You have to be an American to be in this study” with “You have to like the color orange to be in this study.”

  • Smarter than a bunch of smart people

    @”For a bunch of smart people”:

    As the only country in the world with “America” in its name, we are fully within our rights to call ourselves in America and to call ourselves Americans.

    My mixed-race family and I are happy and proud to call ourselves Americans. And Asians. We don’t hyphenate the two, however. We’re Asian. We’re American. We’re proud of both. We speak English. We speak Vietnamese. We speak some Japanese, too. Hyphens are for wimps with identity problems and overly thin skin.

    @Debbie G. You make me want to vomit. Grow some pride in our country.

    P.S. Illegal aliens piss us off. We waited too long in line and did everything by the book to have any sympathy for line jumpers. Put the army on the border and declare a free-fire zone. Watch he problem disappear.

  • Brian Too

    Have you ever noticed that “no one” uses the term America to refer to the New World, i.e. the Americas?

    I mean, we have several qualified Americas (North, Central & South). Yet I’ve never heard the term America (or america) used to refer to all of them at once.

    Linguistic curiosity. Maybe it’s just too confusing and so people avoid that usage.

  • Michelle

    Is someone were to say “United Statesian” it not only would be cumbersome but it would also infringe on the name of the Mexican nation (los Estados Unidos de Mexico) ! We are the only ones with “America” in the name, people shorten for obvious reasons. And only people with self-identity problems keep bringing up that the name of the continents is America, so Americans can’t call themselves that. Sorry…the continents are North America and South America. Not just America.

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @John Lerch, actually, the scientists DID look into whether the subjects were eating more calories because they were stressed, and found that it didn’t change the overall finding. The study’s actually very well designed and controlled–when it becomes available online, definitely check it out.

  • Matt B.

    “Ironically, they point out, the white students, who embodied the prototypical American identity the others were aiming for, didn’t eat nearly as much American food as Asian-Americans who felt threatened.”

    Just as male transvestites dress to a hyper-feminine standard that no woman outside a 1940s movie ever held herself to. And as some people put American flags all over their cars to prove how patriotic they are.

  • Jake

    I would have loved if they split up 1st generation Asian Americans vs 2nd generation.

    Because I imagine those Asian Americans you spent a significant number of year sin their native countries would have a much stronger sense of identity.

  • Jake

    There’s also another problem with the study.

    A lot of the Asian food in the US is a bastardized version so perhaps those Asian Americans were simply reminded of how nasty tasting the Americanized Asian food is compared to authentic fare.

    And because of that they ordered the regular American food.

  • Chris the Canadian

    There is an EVEN BIGGER problem with this study. The problem is, why the heck are we studying this in the first place? What purpose does this study have? I’m sorry, but I don’t see the value of a study like this. New Americans more prone to eating fast food if they are asked “Do you speak english” than those who are not asked. A waste of research time, dollars and effort.

    Instead, scientists should be working towards solving the obesity crisis in North America as a whole. What can be done to stem the tide of sedentary lifestyles in people. Find a ‘trigger’ in the brain to get people out from in front of their computers, video games, and televisions and back outside or off the couch.

  • AK

    Did the scientists compare the results from the group of those Asian-Americans whom they hadn’t make self concious and asked what their favorite food type was, to discount the alternative possibility that making self-concious has nothing to do with the food habit described by those Asian Americans?

  • EXcellentStudy

    Yes, I was a ‘fat kid.’ After age 50, kind of ‘fataholic reformed.’
    think similar to Jack La Lanne. Born in USA; almost marry typical USA;
    eat the food. Never thought of ‘assimilated.’

    Only late after college, shocked at VINCENT CHIN massacre. Officer of OCA
    and other orgs. Food partially studied (maybe I am a strange one, eh?)
    from MARTIAL ARTS.

    Have not eaten BREAD for one to EIGHT years. NEVER EAT BREAD. performing
    ad hoc Masters studies on ‘eat rice’ and handle the hyper-glycemia vs.
    eat bread and suffer bloat/indigestion.

    food-combining laws: from the Bible, etc. no meat and dairy. No hamburger
    and milk shake and potato fries – acrylomide,etc.

    But, the general conclusion. Asian-Americans tend to be ‘quiet’, ‘conforming’ DO NOT RAISE a ruckus. Yes, sometimes I eat bread because
    my friends eat pizza. Would a VEGETARIAN eat BURGER because her family
    dines together at THANKSGIVING?

    But, there is a balance. My HYPOTHESIS – attack this HYPOTHESIS, please!

    social conforming (yes, there was time when I wore mostly black and gray
    and NO I am not autistic) but non-conforming – innovative in engineering
    or science or accounting – making the NUMBERS DANCE!

    Why can Asian Americans eat rice (worse than ice cream on glycemic index)
    and NOT BREAD, cake, baked products?)

    Hey Crhis the Canadian. I DISAGREE. But the study is POORLY DESIGNED!

    better is got slight peanut allergy. could mean short breath and DEATH.
    hang out with fellow kids and peeer pressure for peanut buttter and jelly

    In math and other textbooks at least 10 or 20 percent of the STANDARD
    books are confusing. It is better to REVOLUTIONARY. But social wise,
    politeness, even when someone drunk spits in your face?

    Maybe that is the STRANGENESS of Asian American Culture.

    No, I am not MS Psych/Sociology. But plenty friends, associates.
    ALUMNI orgs and

    better for mostly veggie Buddhist – the turkey is humanely killed, it is
    OK, our family eats it… so EAT TURKEY…

    that would be fun psycho coercion study.

  • geeta

    Got to agree with what George in #13 says about the typical trend of trying to prove as being inclusive especially when being singled out or having gotten special attention due to looks/ways deemed as of the ‘not belonging’ (see for eg. the offense exhibited by John in #7, while the question should have just been seen as an ignorant one coming from a person who had never had to go about ‘getting citizenship’ and who made some deductions from the looks of John).
    However, this happens to the stereotypical weaker characters that have not quite defined themselves in a positive way (or are not happy in how they define themselves) and look for validations by others, of everything they do and are.
    And then there are those who take ‘pride’ in their personal choices and in aspects that they couldn’t choose (such as skin color, sex, place/date of birth etc) that are irrelevant to others whatsoever, and find it necessay to advertise their choices. Worse still, are those that ‘feel proud’ (synonymous to ‘try to take credit’) for an achievement by some total stranger they have had no interaction with, ‘relating’ to the achiever by one or more of those aspects that are totally unrelated to the achievement in the news.
    There’s a word for these 2 types of behavior – immaturity. And the solution – grow up

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