When people share a meal together, they tend to eat as much or as little as their dining companion does, as many studies have shown.
Now, new research finds that women who share a meal with women they have not previously met mimic each other's eating behaviour, even taking bites at the same time.
"The aim of our study was to gain insight into one of the possible underlying mechanisms of this modeling effect, namely behavioural mimicry," said R.C.J. Hermans, a doctoral candidate at the Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. He led the study, which appears online in PLoS ONE.
Hermans and his colleagues observed 70 pairs of young women as they ate a meal together. They recorded their bites, which amounted to nearly 4 000. Then, they analyzed whether the women mimicked each other. Behavioural mimicry is defined as a person unwittingly imitating the behaviour of another.
For this study, the bite had to be taken within five seconds of the bite of the other person to be recorded. The mimicry went both ways and was more pronounced at the beginning of the meal than at the end.
"We did not test whether people deliberately or unwittingly mimicked the other's intake," Hermans said. "Based on previous research on behavioural mimicry, however, I am likely to say that this is an unconscious process. This assumption is underscored by previous findings of our lab, in which we found that people are generally unaware of the social influences that might affect their food intake."
It could also be, he speculated, that the women monitored each other's eating behavior to maintain a similar pattern. Because they were eating with someone they had not met before, he said, they might have been trying to connect socially with the person.
That could explain why the mimicry declined as the meal progressed, he said, as the women perhaps began to feel socially connected.
The new study builds on previous research, said Dr Rick Hoyle, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
"The women who shared a meal together were previously unacquainted, which is key to interpreting and applying the findings," Hoyle said. "Prior research on mimicry suggests that it is, to some degree, motivated by a desire to affiliate. The results of this study are consistent with that interpretation, showing significantly greater mimicry of taking a bite of food during the first half of the 20-minute interaction."
It's not known, Hoyle said, if this pattern of findings would hold for friends who interact and eat together often.
So, if you're trying to lose weight, should you avoid eating with someone who eats more than you do?
"I would not go that far," Hermans said. "Social eating is an important part of our cultural life, which brings a lot of positive aspects with it."
Those trying to lose weight can instead be aware of this possible mimicry. "So, specifically ask yourself if you really want to eat that dessert or whether you just order dessert because everyone else does," Hermans said.
Hoyle agreed. "The key to avoiding this trap is to be aware that mimicry is both typical and non-conscious," he said. "Mindless eating will no doubt be affected by the tendency to mimic others at the table. Mimicry can be overcome by mindful eating, by which the individual focuses on the food, the experience of eating it, and the way the body feels as the meal progresses."
This scenario assumes your companions overeat, Hoyle said. If you are trying to eat less and find that your companions eat relatively little, Hoyle said, of course "it is to our benefit to yield to the tendency to mimic their behavior."
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