People have been shown to eat more and rate the food as more enjoyable if they eat with others. A new study finds that this effect still holds true if the other 'person' is just their reflection in a mirror.
Humans are social animals, and, as such, we are influenced by the presence of others. Some of these interactions have been studied in more detail than others.
A study published this week in the journal Physiology & Behavior investigates a type of social influence that is not yet particularly well understood.
When eating with family and friends, we tend to enjoy our food more and eat more of it. This is referred to as "social facilitation of eating."
A team of researchers from Nagoya University in Japan set out to tease this interaction apart and try to understand whether or not it can be manipulated.
Although the effect might seem rather unimportant in the global scheme of science, the findings could have positive implications for the loneliest members of our society.
Many people, particularly older adults, eat alone. As corresponding author Nobuyuki Kawai explains, "Studies have shown that, for older adults, enjoying food is associated with quality of life, and frequently eating alone is associated with depression and loss of appetite."
Therefore, simple interventions that could improve people's enjoyment of food might impact their quality of life significantly.
Why is food tastier with friends?
One theory that attempts to explain the social facilitation of eating involves mood. The theory goes that when we eat with friends and family, our mood is elevated, and that alone is enough to explain the phenomenon.
Some studies have shown that people enjoy their food more and eat more of it when they eat with people they are close to, as opposed to strangers.
But more recently, this theory has been brought into question. For instance, one study demonstrated that two strangers found chocolate more flavorful and enjoyable when they ate it together (without any communication). Also, mood changes did not seem to add to the effect.
So, the jury is out. The authors of the current study wanted to uncover the "minimum requirement for this effect to occur." They wanted to see if they could replicate the increased enjoyment and consumption without another person being present at all.
Initially, they focused their study on a group of older adults, as they are most commonly impacted by the effects of eating alone. The team asked participants to eat popcorn either in front of a mirror or in front of a monitor displaying an image of a wall.
They found that simply by eating in front of a mirror, the participants consumed more and experienced greater pleasure from the food.
Next, they carried out the same experiment on a younger set of participants, and the findings were consistent: a mirror was enough to invoke the social facilitation of eating.
Mirrors swapped for portraits
Following on from these two trials, the team swapped the mirrors for photos of the participants eating. Again, the results were the same: the individuals ate greater amounts and enjoyed the food more. It turns out that "social" facilitation of eating might be a misnomer.
"Our findings, therefore, suggest a possible approach to improving the appeal of food, and quality of life, for older people who do not have company when they eat - for example, those who have suffered loss or are far away from their loved ones."
The authors hope that future studies will be carried out to extend our knowledge. For instance, they would like to know whether or not pictures of other people would have the same effect as pictures of participants themselves.
Similarly, they would like to understand whether the images need to feature people eating, and whether images of people not eating might still work.
Although exactly why this effect occurs is now shrouded in even more layers of confusion, the effect appears to be robust. So, anyone who has a loved one who regularly eats alone might be doing them a favor by placing a mirror on their dining table.