Staying a long time with our friends or family members would encourage us to eat more than when we eat alone. This is highlighted by a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Birmingham, England, whose first results have just been made public.
How to explain this phenomenon, called “social facilitation” by researchers? Previous academic studies have already shown that when we are in a group, we eat up to 48% more food than when we are alone. Another study concluded that obese women eat up to 29% more when accompanied than when they eat alone.
Birmingham researchers go further. Screening 42 pre-existing studies, they concluded that eating “socially” had a powerful effect on increasing dietary intake compared to eating alone.
According to them, the explanation of this mechanism can be found in our ancestry. In prehistoric times, hunter-gatherers shared food because it protected them against periods of food insecurity. It is the reminiscence of this survival mechanism that leads, even today, people to eat more when they are in the presence of their family or friends.
The researchers also looked at why this social facilitation has continued over the centuries, even though periods of food insecurity have become increasingly rare.
They identify three main ones. First, since eating with other people is more enjoyable, it could affect our consumption. It is also a question of social norms: while eating too much is acceptable when in the company of other people, it is badly accepted if this overconsumption of food takes place when you are alone. Finally, they found that providing food was associated with praise and recognition from friends and family, which strengthened social bonds.
For Helen Ruddock, research director at the University of Birmingham School of Psychology and co-author of the study, the way we eat when we are in the company of others says a lot about the image we want to project to others. “Previous research findings suggest that we often choose what (and how much) we eat based on the type of impression we want to convey about ourselves.” The evidence suggests that this can be particularly true for women who eat with men they want to impress and for obese people who want to avoid being judged for excess food,” she says.
The study finally points out that this social facilitation and social distribution of food could also influence unhealthy dietary intake: to be seen as one who eats more than others can lead to ostracism, which in turn reduces Food Safety.
To prevent this from happening, the solution is “to eat at least as much as the other members of the group. The individual members adapt their behavior to that of others, which favors a larger meal than in the absence of this social competition,” concludes Dr. Ruddock.