The true purpose of eating is to fuel the body, but the advent of culture and communication has turned eating into a social event. With evidence dating back at least 12,000 years, some researchers speculate that feasting with others played an important role in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships, the integration of communities, and the mitigation of scalar stress.
One method through which social facilitation is accomplished is mimicry. That is, people eating with others adjust their food intake to that of their eating companions, and this appears to be related to the desire to please others. But if people change their eating behaviors to please others, then you have to wonder how other behaviors would change as well. To investigate this, Marije aan het Rot and colleagues from the Netherlands and Canada examined whether behavioral expressions of affiliation and expressions of hierarchy are altered during a meal.
They recruited 97 men and women who worked at least 30 hours per week with others (to ensure they had a range of social interactions) to report on their behaviors, perceptions, and mood during social interactions for three weeks. Social interactions were defined as those that occurred in person, by telephone, or via internet chatting, and lasted at least 5 minutes.
In line with previous research showing that people use meals to build relationships, participants in this study reported greater agreeableness and less dominance and submissiveness during meals than at other times. There was also an increase in pleasant mood during a meal, with a greater effect in women than in men. The authors propose three explanations:
- People select who they interact with while eating
- Having a meal with others is associated with psychosocial factors
- Eating food leads to biological changes
In reality, it seems more reasonable to conclude that all these factors play a role to some extent some of the time. For example, it is pretty easy to pick who you interact with when at home, but when at a dinner party for your boss or having lunch with clients the choices are much more limited. Also, as mealtime etiquette varies greatly between cultures, it would be interesting to know how meals influence interpersonal behavior in other cultures.
Humans eat to please. Both in laboratory settings and in daily life, food intake is usually greater when eating with others than when eating alone, and this is even worse if eating with family and friends. Putting this in a dieter’s context, it does thus seem prudent to eat with those who don’t pig-out at buffets like I do.
Interestingly, however, some research reports the matching of food intake to not occur when both persons eating together score high on self-esteem or low on empathy, suggesting that desire for social acceptance may be an underlying cause of social matching of food intake. Thus, it would be interesting to pig-out at a buffet with friends and family and see how their food intake matches yours. It may tell you something.