It has been suggested that a broad range of social factors influence disturbed eating attitudes, but there has been relatively little investigation of the role of peer influence. Drawing from social identity theory, this longitudinal study of a nonclinical group of women examined whether social proximity results in a convergence of eating psychopathology over time. Forty-one nonclinical women (living in 11 communal apartments) completed the Eating Disorders Inventory (EDI) at three time points (1 week after moving in, 10 weeks later, and a further 14 weeks later). The women's eating and related attitudes were compared across the three time points. Then divergence scores were calculated (showing the spread of EDI scores within each apartment) and compared across the three time points. The spread of scores within the apartments changed significantly, indicating some convergence in those attitudes that are socially valued (restrictive attitudes; body concerns) and divergence in those attitudes that are not socially valued (bulimia). There was also an increase in convergence of levels of perfectionism. The findings support the suggestion that social proximity promotes convergence of socially valued eating characteristics but divergence of socially stigmatised characteristics. Further research is suggested to establish the generalizability of these findings and to identify those who are most at risk of such social effects on eating disturbance.
1School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, United Kingdom.
2Department of General Psychiatry, St. George's Hospital Medical School, University of London, Cranmer Terrace, London SW17 0RE, United Kingdom. Send reprint requests to Dr. Waller.