How Those Who Eat Together, Work Together

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash

Teamwork requires effective cooperation, which is why team-building exercises are so popular in the world of business. When people learn to understand and appreciate each other, they also collaborate more efficiently. If you’ve ever joined a sports team with a group of total strangers, you’ll know that it’s difficult to perform well because you lack knowledge of each person’s strengths and behavioral patterns. If you join a group of friends, or people you’ve previously interacted with, everything runs more smoothly.

Team-building days generally involve tasks and activities that require multiple team members to collaborate. It can be difficult to design tasks that everyone enjoys because we all come in with our own attitudes and preferences. Extroverts tend to dominate discourse too much, while introverts roll their eyes at over-enthusiastic efforts to force people into having fun. Whenever I think of awkward team-building events, I think of that Windows 95 launch video.

Many areas of industry are embracing behavioral science to better understand people’s thinking patterns. The science usually aims to calculate how customers are likely to respond to particular business decisions, such as price hikes, product releases, and advertising. But it can also be used to help motivate and engage employees. Any strategy or design principle that naturally assists people in their work is a good addition to a company program.

A recently published study in Psychological Science tested a fascinating new idea that could add to the long list of performance-enhancing behavioral nudges. The researchers were interested in how joint meals with other people — in particular meals that include shared plates — may impact general cooperation. Whether you’re someone who likes to order several dishes for the middle of the restaurant table, or someone who prefers to keep their food to themselves, it’s worth knowing whether you’re missing out on potential advantages of the other side.

In their first experiment, the researchers organized people into pairs and asked them to play an economic game involving a wage negotiation, where one person acted as an employee union, and the other acted as management. Their instruction was to settle on an hourly wage between $10 and $11, and the outcome determined how likely each person was to win a reward at the end of the experiment. They negotiated by exchanging bids in consecutive rounds, and had to agree on a wage as quickly as possible.

In other words, there was an element of competition in the game — what’s the best wage I can negotiate? — and also an element of cooperation — how quickly can we reach a deal? A quicker negotiation and better personal outcome meant a higher chance of winning.

Before they started the game, the researchers provided tortilla chips and salsa at the negotiation table. Some people received the food in shared bowls in the middle of the table: one bowl for the chips and one bowl for the salsa. Other people had their own independent bowls of chips and salsa. The researchers told everyone that the experiment measured the effects of hunger on decision-making. In reality, the researchers were more interested in the difference between people who dipped into the same bowl of chips, and people who dipped into their own separate bowls. Would the people sharing food cooperate more?

In line with the researchers’ predictions, people who shared from the same bowl spent significantly less time reaching a deal in the negotiation game. They took an average of only 9 negotiation rounds compared to the 13 rounds of separate eaters. In fact, with this cooperative eating mentality, the negotiating parties also achieved better personal outcomes overall compared to their peers who ate separately.

After this result, the researchers went on to replicate the same effect with a different group of people using another classic decision-making game. In this second game, pairs of people acted as competing airline executives setting their own fares for customers. They could either cooperate by setting the same high fares, or set a discounted price compared to their partner in order to steal their customers.

Once again, people who shared food instead of eating their own before the game were more likely to cooperate with each other. Of course, in the real world, this kind of cooperation between competing airline businesses could be considered illegal price fixing. But it’s cooperation nonetheless.

Both of the experiments above used pairs of people who did not know each other. But could the effect change if pairs of friends rather than strangers play the games?

To answer this final question, the researchers ran a third experiment. This time, they repeated the negotiation task from the first experiment, but they actively went out to recruit pairs of friends who were found sitting together on their university campus. They then compared these pairs to independent pairs of strangers.

Unsurprisingly, friends were more cooperative than strangers in the negotiation game overall. However, friends and strangers were equally affected by sharing food before the game: both groups showed similar increases in their levels of cooperation after sharing snacks from a single bowl rather than eating separately. So the power of sharing food applies equally to your best friends and to people you have only just met.

The data from this final experiment suggested that sharing plates enhanced people’s feelings of coordination while they ate, and this translated into higher feelings of coordination during negotiations. When eating together, 67% of people physically passed each other the food containers on the table at least once, and 88% of people paused while reaching for the food to generously allow their partner to go first.

People who shared food also ate simultaneously 92% of the time, compared to only 82% of the time for people who had their own separate portions. Through developing a sense of coordination with their partner during eating, people became more willing to trust and cooperate in later activities.

What do these findings mean for us?

All of us need to eat, so mealtimes are a natural target for building a sense of joint activity and community. Families like to eat together, friends frequently meet for dinner, and colleagues regularly socialize over lunch. By introducing shared plates to those meals, we may be able to maximize a feeling of togetherness, and potentially improve teamwork when it matters.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +444,678 people.

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