Breaking Bread Together Leads Negotiators to Better Outcomes

New research identifies the benefits of shared eating for negotiators.

Posted Dec 14, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

 Photo by Taryn Elliott from Pexels
Mint Tea in Morocco
Source: Photo by Taryn Elliott from Pexels

Between 2001 and 2010, I directed a study abroad program in Fez, Morocco. When my students and I walked the narrow streets of the medina, shopkeepers often invited us to stop and enjoy a glass of sweet mint tea. They knew that, if we accepted their hospitality, we would be more likely to buy something from their shop. The norm of reciprocity—which is said to be a cultural universal—says that when a person gives you something of value, you have a weak obligation to give that person something of similar value in return.

In many cultures, a ritual of "breaking bread" precedes important negotiations. Several years ago, a delegation of faculty and staff from Beloit College in the United States visited Kansai-Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan, to establish a student exchange program between the two universities. Before signing the agreement, the representatives of both schools chatted amiably over an elegant bento box lunch in a beautifully-appointed dining room.

Breaking bread together is a kind of shared eating, and a series of studies in 2019 demonstrated that shared eating produces higher levels of cooperation (and lower levels of competition) than eating separately. 

Researchers Jiyin Cao, Dejun Tony Kong, and Adam Galinksy read the 2019 studies and wondered if the effect would generalize to more realistic negotiation situations. Specifically, the earlier studies prevented participants from communicating with each other in the back-and-forth manner that characterizes most real-life negotiations. The earlier studies also involved a single issue, the length of a workers' strike. Was the effect of shared eating limited to that one issue? No one could say for sure.

To address these methodological limitations, Cao and her colleagues recruited 194 university students and grouped them into 97 negotiating pairs. About half the participants were Asian, 31 percent were White, and 11 percent were Latinx. The researchers randomly assigned pairs to one of three experimental conditions: a shared eating condition, a separate eating condition, or a no eating (control) condition.

Before the negotiation phase of the study, each pair was told they would participate in a marketing study about tasting food. In the shared eating condition, participants opened a pack of crackers, poured them into a large bowl, and then ate the crackers from the shared bowl. In the separate eating condition, participants ate their crackers from separate bowls. (Pairs in the control condition did not eat anything.)

Every pair of participants then completed a simulated negotiation exercise that involved a recruiter, a candidate, a job offer, and eight job-related issues to be negotiated (salary and location, for example). The goal of the exercise was to reach an agreement that would be maximally satisfying to both parties.

The details are mathematically complex, but the researchers were able to measure the degree to which negotiators reached a maximally satisfying agreement on a 100-point scale. If a recruiter, for example, cared more about two specific issues, and a candidate cared more about two different issues, and they recognized the other's preferences and swapped accordingly, the pair received a very high score. (In the language of negotiations, the technical term for maximizing joint outcomes is Pareto efficiency.)

The results of the study were clear-cut. Negotiating pairs in the shared eating condition typically had higher Pareto-efficiency scores than pairs in the separate eating and no eating conditions. (The latter two conditions did not differ from each other.) The observed effect was moderately large, about 13 points on the 100-point scale, despite the fact that pairs in all conditions were fairly skilled at achieving mutually beneficial outcomes.

Eating together appears to install or promote a mindset that fosters cooperation. The implications of this effect, assuming it can be replicated in future studies, are worth considering. Families, teams, and other social groups that eat together may fare better than groups that don't. Negotiations that take place via Zoom may be at a disadvantage (when it comes to achieving Pareto efficiency) because they can't be preceded by an in-person communal meal. Perhaps it is time to invent a new ritual that can be performed at a distance yet maintains the essential features of breaking bread together.

References

Cao, J., Kong, D. T., & Galinsky, A. D. (2020). Breaking bread produces bigger pies: An empirical extension of shared eating to negotiations and a commentary on Woolley and Fishbach (2019). Psychological Science, 31(10), 1340-1345.