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family style dining cooperation study

New Study Shows Shared Meals Lead to Increased Cooperation

Posted May 9, 2019 By Andrew Littlefield

Looking to land your next big deal? You might want to consider a little family-style dining before beginning your negotiations.

A new study from researchers at Cornell and the University of Chicago found that participants worked together to reach better outcomes when they were asked to share a snack from a shared bowl before they began negotiating, as opposed to those who ate from their own separate bowls.

The authors of the study, Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, proposed that the coordination and cooperation required to share a snack would prep participants to adopt a similar mindset when entering negotiations. To test this theory, the researchers set up three experiments, in which a pair of participants ate a snack and then played a negotiation game with the potential for a cash reward based on their performance. One group of participants ate their snack from a shared plate, while the others received their own individual portions.

The games were set-up like real world negotiations, with each party defending its own interest, but both parties motivated to end negotiations quickly and reach a deal. In one example, the participants played the roles of union and company leadership attempting to settle on a wage, while limiting the amount of time on strike. Another game pitted participants against each other in a price-setting game, where they could win or lose big or take a middle route in which they were both moderately rewarded.

Results were striking—participants that ate their snack from a shared portion reached equitable agreements more quickly than their counterparts who ate from individual portions. The results were similar whether the participants were friends or strangers.

Woolley and Fishbach point out that eating is far from the only type of cooperative ritual humans participate in, but it is one of the few with universal, daily participation. The family-style of dining (shared plates) is less common in the United States than, say, Asian cultures, and the researchers postulate that this could be a reason why these societies often value the welfare of others more than our own.

The study offers a convincing argument for shared-plate meals at work to increase cooperative behavior and mutually beneficial outcomes. “Food is universal, so it inherently brings people together,” says Taryn Miller-Stevens, VP of community at Convene. “With all of our celebrated differences and uniqueness in the workplace, food is one of the few things that everyone can share, and that builds empathy.”

Before you start throwing down plates, take time to plan out your meal experience. Study authors Woolley and Fishbach warn that too much or too little food could have the opposite effect. Too little can trigger our competitive nature as we fight to fill our own needs, and an abundance of food requires no cooperation between parties.

“Where and how you eat is just as important as what you’re eating,” says Miller-Stevens. “A table that’s too big makes shared plates cumbersome, which creates friction instead of connection. Try round or farm-style long tables if you’re looking to create that communal, collaborative experience.”



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