The Hidden Power of a Family-Style Meal

What can a family-style meal do for our relationships?

Posted Sep 22, 2019

In individualistic cultures, people are less likely to share a plate
Source: vivienviv0/pixabay

As the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, I grew up on family-style meals. Eating out at Western restaurants (aside from fast-food chains) was a special treat. At home we would eat from shared dishes, using chopsticks to carefully transfer portions to our plates. At restaurants, it was the same. We’d often sit at large round tables that held 10-20 people at a time, spinning the Lazy Susan to get our share.

It wasn’t until I was older that I experienced the awkwardness that is faced by the “typical” American when it comes to eating out as a large party. My Americanized friends and I would sit at long rectangular tables, interacting with only five people or so, if we were lucky enough not to get an end seat. Each of us would order our own entrée, and at the end of the meal, we would each pay for what we ordered—nothing less, nothing more. The round table felt so much better and more harmonious to me, but little did I know that the benefits extend beyond the more social dining experience.

Previously, much research had been conducted on the consequences of eating a meal with family, that is, sitting down to eat at the same time. A recent study, however, looked at the power of a family-style meal, in which people eat from the same plate. Woolley and Fishbach (2019) conducted three studies of a total of 1,476 participants to test whether people who shared a plate were more cooperative.

In Study 1, participants were told that the researchers were “studying how hunger impacts decisions” (p. 543), and that they needed to eat chips and salsa prior to playing a decision-making game. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In one condition, they had to eat chips and salsa off of one plate with a stranger, whereas in the other condition, they each got their own plate of chips and salsa. During the game, each participant was assigned to play the role of either the “union member” or the “management” during a strike. The pair was asked to negotiate a new hourly wage that would benefit themselves, but to also reach an agreement as quickly as possible, as the strike was detrimental for both parties. The researchers found that those who shared their plates reached an agreement more quickly (within 8.72 vs. 13.20 strike days), therefore benefiting both parties. In other words, sharing food off of one plate led to greater cooperation and better outcomes for all.

Sharing a plate may enhance cooperation
Source: karriezhu/pixabay

In Study 2, the researchers instead had participants either eat goldfish crackers from a shared bag, or from their own bag. Participants played a variation of the prisoner’s dilemma game, in which people can either cooperate with their partners or defect for their own benefit. However, if both participants defect, they both lose. In this case, both would hypothetically earn $5 million as airline executives if both cooperated. If one were to defect while the other cooperated, this defector would earn $7 million to the other person’s $2 Million. However, if both defect, each would only get $3 million. Using this paradigm, the researchers replicated their findings from Study 1, finding that 63% of those who shared the crackers cooperated, compared to 43% of those who had their own bag. Interestingly, cooperation was not explained by an increased feeling of closeness, as sharing the crackers did not increase closeness.

In Study 3, the researchers sought to explain the source of increased cooperation as well as to extend their findings to other relationships. Using the same goldfish sharing paradigm as in Study 2, the researchers found that both pairs of friends and strangers were more cooperative after sharing. In addition, they found that perceived coordination while eating and negotiating (measured via the questions, “When you were eating the Goldfish snack, how coordinated did you feel you were with your partner?” and, “When you were bidding over an hourly wage, how coordinated did you feel you were with your partner?”; p. 547) explained this effect.

Woolley and Fishbach (2019) concluded that a family-style meal promotes coordination and cooperation by forcing us to balance our needs with that of others. For instance, as we are eating, we are constantly thinking about whether we are taking too much food for ourselves, and whether we are leaving enough food for others.

Most of us take our daily habits for granted, rarely stopping to think about our approach to food. However, as trivial as they may seem, our food sharing habits can be traced to our deep-seated cultural values. As the researchers mention, in collectivistic societies, such as many Asian countries, sharing food from one plate is the norm. In these cultures, people are encouraged to consider others in their decision-making and to prioritize the group's needs over their own. Sharing a plate is an expression of this dynamic. In individualistic societies, such as many Western countries, people rarely share food from one plate. We tend to have our own plates with all the portions carefully rationed out, or, we may have a buffet in which, as the authors mention, the food is unlimited. As a result, we seldom have to consider others when we eat.

This provides a layer of comfort and freedom in not having to think about others, and being able to eat whatever we want at our own pace. I myself am guilty sometimes of preferring that individually-rationed plate, because it's just easier. But what are we potentially missing? Would we all show a bit more care for each other if we simply shared our food?