Eating Behavior May Be Influenced By Dining Companions

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A new study published in the online journal PLoS ONE demonstrates that diners mimic the eating patterns of their dining companions, matching them bite-for-bite [1]. The researchers studied pairs of young women who did not know one another, and found that they influenced each other with regard to eating patterns. Particularly within the first ten minutes of dining together, the women tended to mimic each other, taking bites of food within five seconds of one another.

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Scientists who study eating behavior have known for quite some time that the circumstances under which an individual eats affect how much is consumed. For instance, solitary diners tend to eat more than those who eat with companions [2]. How much one’s dinner companion eats, however, also influences eating behavior. Several studies have shown that humans are likely to eat more when dining companions consume more food, and that similarly, humans eat less when dining with companions who eat very little [3]. Several questions remain with regard to the influence of companions on eating behavior, including why the influence exists, and whether matching the intake of one’s companions is intentional or unconscious.

In the current study, researchers examined whether behavioral mimicry can account for these modeling effects of eating. They evaluated 70 young female pairs, coding for the total number of bites and the exact time at which each person took a bite. The scientists found that both women mimicked each other’s eating behavior; they were more likely to take a bite of their meal in within 5 seconds of their eating companion rather than eating at their own pace. This behavioral mimicry was found to be more prominent at the beginning (i.e. within the first ten minutes) rather than at the end of the meal (i.e. the last ten minutes).

According to the researchers, there are several possible explanations for these observations. Humans have a complex “mirroring network” that causes behavior-matching [4,5]. It’s possible that the pairs of women in the experiment were unconsciously matching one another bite-for-bite in order to create rapport. This possibility is supported somewhat by the observation that the mimicry was strongest in the first ten minutes of dining, a time during which the pairs would be developing a social rapport. The researchers also point out, however, that mimicking the eating behavior of a companion might be a mechanism by which the individual adjusts their caloric intake so as to avoid overeating; that is to say, the dining companion becomes a model for “appropriate eating.” While this is possible, it would require that the women consciously adjusted their eating patterns rather than responding unconsciously, which the researchers did not test. It’s highly unlikely that there would be an unconscious guard against overindulgence, given that until recently in human history, the challenge humans faced was in getting enough food (as opposed to controlling intake).

Regardless of the mechanism, however, the study suggests that eating with a companion who takes very few total bites of food may be a strategy for helping to control one’s own intake at a particular meal.

References

  1. Hermans et al. Mimicry of Food Intake: The Dynamic Interplay between Eating Companions. PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e31027. Epub 2012 Feb 1.
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  2. de Castro and Brewer. The amount eaten in meals by humans is a power function of the number of people present. Physiol Behav. 1992 Jan;51(1):121-5.
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  3. Hermans et al. Modeling of palatable food intake. The influence of quality of social interaction. Appetite. 2009 Jun;52(3):801-4. Epub 2009 Mar 26.
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  4. Chartrand et al. The chameleon effect: the perception-behavior link and social interaction. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1999 Jun;76(6):893-910.
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  5. Lakin et al. Using nonconscious behavioral mimicry to create affiliation and rapport. Psychol Sci. 2003 Jul;14(4):334-9.
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