When two strangers eat the same thing, their similar food choice can be a bond that increases trust and cooperation, research suggests. Advertisers and negotiators may be able to use this tendency strategically.

Food has long brought people together and been a popular topic for sociologists, who have argued, among other things, that people prefer to share a meal rather than eat alone.

Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach and Kaitlin Woolley, a Booth PhD candidate, combine this exploration of food with behavioral-science research about how mirroring another person’s behavior promotes socialization. They find that when people have limited information about each other, eating the same food can increase camaraderie. That, in turn, can lead to trust and cooperation.

Marie Antoinette and her partner in a mob saying "Telling them to let them eat cake has really helped them bond"

In lab experiments, the researchers had two strangers play a game in which one person acted as an investor and the other a fund manager. The “investor” was more likely to invest in the fund manager when they had first eaten similar foods. Strangers who ate similar foods also were able to resolve a mock strike faster and with fewer costs.

One study contained a clear lesson for advertisers. In it, a participant ate a candy bar while watching short video testimonials that purported to show consumers reviewing two products, a stain remover and office software. When the participants saw people eating the same candy bar that they were eating, they tended to like the consumers more—and were more inclined to trust the product information. “One suggestion for marketers advertising non-food products is to also include people in their promotional videos consuming popular foods,” the researchers write.

They offer some caveats—including that the same effect might not hold if people are eating a similar food that one or both dislikes—but point to potential applications. A conference planner could promote cooperation by offering a limited number of food choices to attendees. Dating services could similarly serve fewer options to promote closeness. In sales calls, business meetings, and even job interviews conducted over meals, people can use similar foods to increase social connections.

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