For those of you who did a double-take, how could I resist? It’s not only an example of why punctuation matters but another major reason why we hominids chow down (in addition to the hunger and cravings we discussed the last couple of weeks). Ah, the power of social suggestion… Think for a moment about your experience, and compare eating alone to eating with others. Maybe it’s helpful to break it down further. What is it like to eat with your partner? Your kids? (Yup, that one definitely belongs in a category all its own.) Your extended family? Your friends and neighbors? Strangers? Obviously the particular function and arrangement of the gathering matters (e.g. a raucous Super Bowl party versus an intimate lunch with friends versus a formal cocktail hour). All these factors likely influence our choices and even the mindfulness behind our choices. With our own stories in mind, how do they line up with the research on social eating? What’s really behind the influence of others’ presence anyway? Finally, what’s a good Primal take on the pressures and benefits of social eating?
Researchers have delved into questions of both what we’ll eat and how much we’ll put away when we’re with a group as opposed to on our own. Little surprise that studies show we tend to align our choices with those around us, particularly those right in front of us. While many experts have long noted that we eat more in a social setting than by ourselves, we also apparently eat more in larger groups than smaller groups.
The social shift and attunement only gets more striking with further examination. Researchers have even videotaped and counted thousands of individual bites to demonstrate how subjects (women who hadn’t met before but were paired for the purpose of the study) “synchronized” their eating with that of their companions. Add to this tendency toward behavioral mimicry the penchant of some for people pleasing and you’ve got a consistent recipe for overeating, according to one Case Western Reserve University study.
However, the “socially transmittable” effect can go both ways. In a review of 15 food intake studies, researchers found that what participants viewed as “norms” significantly influenced their eating decisions. When subjects thought others were choosing high calorie foods or large amounts of food, they chose high calorie foods for themselves, but the opposite held as well. Those who believed others in the group were eating low calorie choices or smaller portions selected the same for themselves. According to the authors, “It appears that in some contexts, conforming to informational eating norms may be a way of reinforcing identity to a social group.” In other words, we make our eating choices in part based on the “need to solidify our place in our social group.” (I can imagine Grok for his part nodding at this insight.)
While we can talk about the power of public service messages in keeping with our sense of “norms,” we’re also mentally contending with the influence of food marketing. In the face of contradiction (and maybe even not), we’re likely looking to those people around us. Conceptualizing a survey of 28,000 randomly selected households probably doesn’t appeal as naturally to the hominid brain as the visual of what their neighbors are eating. To support this idea comes an Australian study that suggests the diet and exercise habits of our personal contacts influences our own.
What should we take from all this? Obviously, no one is suggesting shutting ourselves in like hermits or hiding in seclusion every time we take in a scrap of food. (Although creating a circle of like-minded Primal friends can certainly help.) That said, the presentations (at least the popular media versions) of this research are often tinged with an odd mix of finger-waving “shame on you” and rib jabbing “yeah, don’t we all?”. I find this contrary messaging typical and annoying.
First off, how about putting away the self-judgment? (Seriously, has this ever helped anyone?) Shaming/self-shaming has nothing in common with the cognitive recognition that a particular choice isn’t going to do you any favors in the long run. That plate of nachos everyone is digging into at the Friday happy hour? It won’t seem like such a good deal at 10:00 tonight. The birthday cake at Aunt Helen’s fete looks lovely but probably would be better preserved as sentimental decor rather than eaten. Nonetheless, the choice isn’t a character issue. It’s a cognitive decision.
With that said, how about trading the sophomoric bonding over transgression for a light-hearted recognition of our literal “monkey see, monkey do” selves? I think the meta-analysis gets at this approach the best. We’re motivated by the prospect of group acceptance. Note: recognition doesn’t mean license. If we accept that we’re wired to be tempted toward these patterns, it’s not a green light to act on the inclination. What’s understandable isn’t necessarily productive. We’re talking about clarity, not carte blanche.
When we’re clear about being wired to mirror the actions of those around us in an often unconscious attempt to gain acceptance, we can choose to be more aware and act differently. What made sense in evolution (and even today in other contexts) doesn’t do as much good over a bag of Doritos and a case of Miller. Maybe it’s a case of studying our own behavior, noticing our own primeval patterns and asking what would YOU tell Grok to do in this scenario if it were him sitting in a restaurant with several appetizers between him and his modern companions? Can we imagine a little humorous but protective compassion to share with our good Primal fellow – and, likewise, ourselves?
Thanks for reading, everyone. What’s your experience (past or present) with social eating? Offer up your feedback and stories, and enjoy the end of your week.