People rate food as tasting better, and eat more of it, when they eat with others than when they eat alone.
According to researchers, this “social facilitation of eating” is a well-established phenomenon, but how it works is unknown.
Researchers at Nagoya University in Japan have discovered that the same effect can be achieved in individuals eating alone by providing a mirror to reflect them while they eat.
“We wanted to find out what the minimum requirement is for the social facilitation of eating,” lead author Dr. Ryuzaburo Nakata said. “Does another person have to actually be physically present, or is information suggesting the presence of others sufficient?”
The researchers discovered that people eating alone reported food as tasting better, and ate more of it, when they could see themselves reflected in a mirror, compared with when they ate in front of a monitor displaying an image of a wall.
The research team initially worked with a group of older adult volunteers. Approaches to enhance enjoyment of food in people eating without company are particularly relevant for elderly people, because research has shown that many frequently eat alone.
However, when the researchers repeated the experiment with young adult volunteers, they observed the same “social” facilitation of eating when a mirror was present, suggesting that the effect is not limited to older people.
In a further experiment, when the researchers replaced the mirror with photos of the volunteers eating, they discovered that the volunteers still experienced an increase in the appeal of food and ate more. Even a static image of a person eating seems sufficient to produce the “social” facilitation of eating.
“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,” said corresponding author Dr. Nobuyuki Kawai of Tokyo Institute of Technology.
“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 study was published in Physiology & Behavior.
Source: Nagoya University
Photo: A woman is eating popcorn alone in front of a mirror, or a monitor displaying a wall or her static image. People reported the popcorn as tasting better, and consumed more of it, when they ate it in front of a mirror, or even a picture of themselves eating, than when they ate it in front of the monitor displaying a wall. Credit: Nagoya University.