Office cake culture is a big contributor to expanding waistlines. Dr Jason Michael Thomas helps us to break free of the peer pressure to eat that extra slice.
Celebrating birthdays with a cake is commonplace in offices around Australia. Either the birthday girl/boy brings in a cake to share, or their colleagues ambush them with layers of sponge or chocolate cupcakes, covered in icing and blistered with candles (usually verging on a fire hazard). Whichever model you’re familiar with, it’s a positive experience that helps to break up the working day.
Too much of a good thing
A little bit of cake now and then isn’t an issue, but what happens if you have lots of co-workers and therefore lots of birthdays to raise a slice to? Or if every event and milestone is celebrated with cake? The sweet dream quickly becomes a nightmare. Chances are you’ll take a piece because you don’t want to be a killjoy. Or maybe you really do feel like a slice, and in that case, savour every mouthful. But why are we so afraid to turn down treats?
How our brains are wired
Decades of psychological research shows our eating behaviour is influenced by those around us. If most of our colleagues eat the birthday cake, we’re more likely to go for it. If they cut a hefty serving, we’re likely to follow their lead. If there’s a choice of treats and most people pick the one piled up with cream, you guessed it — we’re probably going to go for that one, too.
Why do we do this? Following others makes us feel more part of the group; it binds the group together and reinforces a shared identity, making us feel good. A recent brain-imaging study from Stanford University in the US showed that as we alter our behaviour to match others’, activity in the pleasure part of the brain increases. Following the norm hits that reward button in our brain.
The downside is that if an individual behaves differently from the group, we judge them negatively as a warning to others, to ensure that the group is maintained. Not taking the cake is a hard choice because, to some extent, we’re wired to follow the group to avoid negative consequences. Nobody wants to be a spoilsport.
Finding an alternative
Does this mean you’re doomed to eat more cake than you’d really like, forever more? No, but it’s time to think laterally. As saying no isn’t always easy, an alternative is to change what’s on offer. For instance, you could swap cake for a special breakfast of berries, yoghurt and good coffee (as Team HFG do). You might suggest celebrating a few occasions in one go, to reduce the frequency of treats.
Or you could throw out the food element and come up with something entirely different, such as a team activity, or pitch in for a card and a bunch of flowers.
If your suggestions fall on deaf ears, wrap up a slice of cake to take home. No one needs to know whether you, a neighbour or the ants ate it!