The University Network

How Chinese Food Can Help Friends, Strangers Cooperate

Chinese food is one of America’s favorite foods. But did you know that having Chinese food even with strangers can boost cooperation and help with negotiations?

This is because sharing a plate of food, as is customary in Chinese, Indian and other cultures, leads to better collaboration and therefore faster resolutions, a new study finds.

“I visit Asia quite frequently to teach at Chicago Booth’s campus in Hong Kong and going out to a restaurant there always feels a bit like a dance; you need to coordinate your moves with others,” said Ayelet Fishbach, the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-author of the study.

Fishbach and co-author Kaitlin Woolley, an assistant professor at Cornell University who was a doctoral candidate at the time of the research, were inspired to look to food sharing as a means to boost cooperation by their previous research.

“Our previous research found that eating similar foods brings people together,” said Fishbach. “We were curious whether sharing a plate can increase cooperation and conflict resolution above and beyond eating similar foods.”

“Specifically, we thought that sharing plates with another person requires that you attend to the other person’s needs (compared to eating off separate plates when you can focus on your own food without necessarily thinking about the other diner),” she continued. “And if you attend to someone’s needs when eating, it my lead you to also attend to that person’s needs later on when negotiating.”

The study

The study involved 1,476 participants, which included undergraduate and graduate students, across various scenarios.

In one study, the participants were all strangers to one another and had to pair off in a lab experiment involving union wage negotiation.

The participants were given a snack of chips and salsa. Half of the paired groups shared a bowl of chips and salsa, while the other half had their own bowls and didn’t have to share.

For the wage negotiation, each pair had a participant randomly chosen to act in the role of management or a union representative. They had to come up with an acceptable wage for the union within 22 rounds of negotiation, representing 22 days of negotiation, while being threatened with a union strike from the third round. Since the strikes were assigned a hefty cost, each party had an incentive to reach a resolution quickly.

The researchers found that the teams who shared their snack bowls took less time — nine strike days, on average — to reach a deal. The pairs who had their own bowls took four extra days to get a result.

In another study involving both friends and strangers, the former reached a solution faster than the latter, but sharing a plate had a significant effect for both groups.

The determining factor in the experiments was the way in which the participants coordinated their eating with their partners, according to the researchers.

“When people share plates, they take turns eating,” said Woolley. “Each diner needs to pay attention to and coordinate their movements with the other diner as they navigate the food-space.”

“But when diners eat off their own individual plates, they are not required to coordinate their eating with the other person,” she continued. “We found that how coordinated participants felt as they ate together influenced how coordinated they felt later on in a negotiation. Paying attention to a person’s needs when eating corresponded to partners attending to each others’ needs in negotiating, and led people to come to faster resolutions as a result.”

So, in a world of improved technology where meetings or business negotiations can be easily conducted remotely, it is still important to get together and share a meal.

“Basically, every meal that you’re eating alone is a missed opportunity to connect to someone,” Fishbach explained in a statement. “And every meal that involves food sharing fully utilizes the opportunity to create that social bond.”