Men are at risk of gorging at barbecues or holiday meals because they see it as a ‘Man v Food’ style challenge, say scientists.
Eating too much in front of their peers is regarded as a demonstration of virility and strength, research shows.
But women are put off by the thought of stuffing their faces in public - so are less likely to over-indulge during social gatherings.
In the study undergraduates of similar weight were recruited to participate in a competitive chicken wing eating contest either with or without spectators,
The prize for eating the most wings was a worthless plastic medal but competitors still ate about four times more food than normal.
Men who ate in front of spectators like in the cult cooking TV show Man v. Food, ate 30 percent more than when there wasn’t a crowd watching.
They described the experience as “challenging, cool and exhilarating.”
Women, on the other hand, ate less with spectators than without them and said they found the ordeal “slightly embarrassing.”
Professor Kevin Kniffin, of the food and brand lab at Cornell University in New York, said: “Even if men aren’t thinking about it, eating more than a friend tends to be understood as a demonstration of virility and strength.”
The study published in Frontiers in Nutrition said men are at particular risk of overeating in social situations “even when there is no incentive to do so.”
Prof Brian Wansink, who led the study, said: “Focus on your friends and not the food.”
He notes the findings have obvious implications to holiday buffets and all-you-can-eat nights.
He said: “If you want to prove how macho you are, challenge your friend to a healthy arm wrestle instead of trying to out-eat him.”
The researchers said even in relatively low-stakes environments competitive visibility may dramatically increase how much males eat.
They said the results help illuminate recent discoveries males overeat in various social situations where there are opportunities for men to “show off.”
This may have relevance for dining behaviour especially among younger males at parties, banquets, group dinners and similar social situations.
Although eating competitions and restaurant challenges around the world initially appear only as eating exhibitionism, they may hold insight into general everyday behaviours.
The researchers said: “Whereas the presence of spectators in a competitive setting may lead some people to eat more, it may also cause self-conscious people to eat less. Indeed, this effect does appear to be mediated by gender.”
Even in relatively low-stakes environments visibility and attention dramatically increase how much men will eat but interestingly correlate with lower consumption by women.
The researchers added: “For men, this suggests a warning to many who would otherwise tend to overconsume in highly visible social situations, such as parties, barbeques, tailgates, receptions and on dates.”