Regulated Consuming

Humans are social animals and one function that encourages social cohesion is taking a meal together. This is part of the socialization process or our children to share food with family, friends or peer group. Of course, it is only part of the socialization process, as those who have had the delight of supervising school meals can attest to.

But what happens when the meal is more intimate. Just two people, especially two who aren’t well known to each other? How does one person’s eating behavior affect the others? Hermans et al may now have the answer and have published it in yesterday’s Public Library of Science (1).

One of the laboratories at Radboud University is in the form of a bar, an innovation that many students at other universities must be eyeing with envy, and 70 pairs of young women were fed and watered while being filmed. Only one pair was fed at a time. It’s not clear why the study was restricted to young women with an average age of 22, but maybe we’ll see other variations in the future.

Well, to the study. The human lab rats were fed a full meal and watched for 20 minutes. Bites were counted (in all, 3888 bites were watched carefully). The important factor was the timing of the bites. When a bite was taken within 5 seconds of the companion's bite, this was marked down as a “mimicked bite”, but if the second bite was more than 5 seconds after the other person's bite, it wasn’t mimicked.

Two important findings were noted. The first is that there was indeed a lot of mimicry going on. When one woman took a bite, there was a strong possibility of the other following suit. We should note that this didn’t accelerate into a competition though. The second observation was that the mimicry was marked for the first 10 minutes of the meal and then fell off.

So apparently we adjust our eating behavior to our companion’s, but why? One suggestion is the mirror neuron idea that the frontal lobes of our brain process what we see someone do and cause us to do the same, such as yawn when we see someone else yawn.

The paper also suggest it may be that its part of an affiliation/ingratiation process as two people get to know each other. The greater mimicry in first 10 minutes would seem to suggest that mechanism, although it may just be that the pairs were paying more attention to what each other was doing.

Oh dear, if we are all mimicking each other, we’re going to be in trouble when there’s lots of those unhealthy snacks sitting around. Perhaps any group should elect a designated eater to set the pace as the stroke would in a rowing eight without the cox. We clearly would have to leave the cox’s seat vacant as the shout of “bite, bite…” would distract us from our TV sports programs or soaps.


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