The study found that people in groups apparently tend to seek variety when making initial orders, then gravitate toward similar choices, and then, as the group consensus grows, to move away from popular choices.
"Our study shows empirically that consumers are susceptible to both conformist and variety-seeking tendencies. They like to differentiate themselves from a growing minority or an overwhelming majority, but tend to conform in between," wrote authors Pascale Quester and Alexandre Steyer.
The authors conducted a study on candy bars in a lab, and then moved on to a real-life setting of a restaurant called Flam's in Paris.
They sought out a situation where a drink was included in a package (Flam's Plus) that included an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert.
In such a situation, price would not be a factor, since the drinks were included, and people were unlikely to share drinks, as they might share food in a Chinese restaurant.
"We decided that consumers' choice of pre-meal drinks within a Flam's Plus order would provide the best and most reliable context for determining whether and how individuals' choices were influenced by other's choices, in a condition when individual orders would be made public by the order process," said the authors.
They analysed the data from 70 tables with two or more patrons where everyone ordered the Flam's Plus. The tables ranged from two to 18 customers.
The results of the restaurant study showed people sought variety as long as others' choice of the same item did not achieve a threshold level of group unanimity.
"However, when others' choice of an alternative reaches 30 percent or so, variety seeking weakens. Beyond 60 or 70 percent, variety-seeking has been reversed and becomes conformism...When an alternative becomes very dominant (with over 80 to 90 percent of other selecting it), variety-seeking reappears," explained the authors.
The study has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research.