If Your Dining Partner Overeats, So May You02/02/12
THURSDAY, Feb. 2 (HealthDay News) -- 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 behavior,
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 behavioral mimicry," said R.C.J. Hermans, a doctoral candidate at the Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. He led the study, which appears online Feb. 2 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. Behavioral mimicry is defined as a person unwittingly
imitating the behavior 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
"We did not test whether people deliberately or unwittingly mimicked the other's intake," Hermans said. "Based on previous research on behavioral 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
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."
To learn more about how to avoid mindless eating, visit
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