Wild Connections

What blue-footed boobies and other animals tell us about human relationships

Don’t Touch My Food!

To share or not to share: Does it tell us something about social bonds?

Some people love to share food, essentially having nonexistent food boundaries. Some people like to share your food, but not their own. And still others (like yours truly) are not big fans of sharing at all. For example, not so long ago, I went on a date and, while in the restroom, the meals arrived at the table. Upon returning to my seat, I discovered that almost half of my dinner had already been eaten—by my date! With what must have appeared to be a classic Scooby-doo expression, I just looked at him confused, to which he responded by saying, “It’s delicious, and you’re going to love it!” Huh? Clearly, my date and I fell on very different ends of the spectrum when it came to sharing food.

Consequently, I became curious about this behavior and decided to delve a bit deeper into the inclination, or lack thereof, to share food. For me, whether or not I share my food depends largely on two things: who wants it and how much I value the food item. If asked for a taste of my food, I will consider transferring a small portion of my food to the plate of a close friend and occasionally a relative. Long-term romantic partners are allowed to take food directly from my plate, but only with permission. When it comes to a high value food item, all bets are off and I am less willing to share with anyone. High value foods include very expensive items, those that are delicious but come in a meager portion, and absolute favorites.

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This led me to wonder, why might some individuals be more inclined to share food? Moreover, why share with some people and not others? A recent study, published online a few weeks ago in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, may hold a clue. Researchers report that after sharing food, oxytocin hormone levels in chimpanzees become elevated in both the giver and receiver. Dr. Wittig and colleagues further propose that food sharing releases oxytocin as a way to facilitate bonding and cooperation between unrelated individuals.

Oxytocin is that hormone most well known for its role in bonding mother and infant. As it happens, oxytocin plays a role in all kinds of pair bonds and social settings, from friendship to flooding the brain in the early stages of romantic love. The little known other side of the oxytocin coin is that it will also intensify negative emotions like distrust and jealousy, particularly in competitive situations and toward strangers. This could explain why one might be okay with sharing with close friends or family but not an unfamiliar person (like a first date!).

However, keep something in mind. Be it chimpanzee or human (well, this human at least), many individuals will not take kindly to having their food just taken away from them. So if you want a taste, all you have to do is ask. Just be prepared to know where you stand depending on the response you get. 

Jennifer Verdolin, Ph.D. is an animal behavior expert currently studying lemur personality and social networks at Duke University.

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