Bite for Bite, Women Diners Copy Each Other

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(Image credit: Lunch photo via Shutterstock)

Women who dine together tend to eat at the same pace, according to a new study. The researchers say they now want to find out whether the same applies to men.

In the study, researchers brought together pairs of strangers for a meal and measured the length of time they took between bites. They found that the two women kept similar eating paces, perhaps in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with each other.

"If we want to be liked, we imitate more, without being aware of it," said study author Roel Hermans of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. "In our study, two previously unknown women were interacting with each other, and it is possible that their motive to get along with each other, or their motivation to be liked, might have increased their likelihood of mimicry."

The study is published online in the Feb. 2 issue of the journal PLoS One.

Imitation during meals

Previous studies have found that other people influence our eating and drinking behavior. One study found that people mimic the sipping pattern of their peers, while others have found that women eat more when their dining partners are eating a lot of food.

While many studies have focused on how one diner affects the other, the Dutch researchers said this study aimed to find out if the interaction between partners went both ways.

Researchers examined data from a previous study in which 70 pairs of Dutch women shared a 20-minute meal of pasta or mash pot, a common Dutch meal of potatoes mashed with vegetables. The dining partners did not know each other, and one of them was instructed to eat a specific amount.

Through a hidden camera in a lamp, experimenters counted the number of bites taken and the timing of these bites. When a woman took a bite within five seconds of the other woman's, the researchers defined it as a "mimicked bite."

They found that women were much more likely to take a bite within five seconds of their partner's bite than outside that time frame.

Behavioral mimicry

There could be several reasons for this pattern, Hermans said. It could be due to a basic desire to mimic others — when women seeing their dining partner take a bite, it activates their motor system to take a bite as well. Or there could be a deeper level of social cues at work, where women use one another's behavior to guide their own behavior, in order to adhere to a norm. 

The researchers also found that women were three times as likely to mimic their dining companion during the first 10 minutes of the meal as in the last 10 minutes. Hermans said the researchers suspect this is because the beginning of the meal is when the woman begins to establish rapport with a stranger.

In the future, Hermans said he hopes to study other diners –  men, children and older adults – and also see whether the results are the same for people who already know each other.

"People should be more motivated to convey a good impression during their initial interactions with a stranger than with someone who they know well," he said. 

Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Salvy, a scientist at the RAND Corp. who studies eating behavior, said she would like to see further examination of the reasons behind imitated eating patterns.

"Future studies should distinguish between ingratiation and pure mimicry," she said.

Hermans said people should become aware of their social environment and aware that in certain instances they may ignore internal signals and follow the lead of others.

"This doesn't have to be a problem if you don't want to lose weight, but if you want to lose weight, I would advise people to not only to focus on eating healthy, but to also be aware of the environmental factors that might influence your intake," he said.   

Pass it on: Women in a study tended to match their dining companion's eating pace, bite for bite.

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