Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 08, 2019

Does Sharing Plates Increase Cooperation?

by Kaitlin Woolley
group of people eating otuside at a big table, some are men, some are women, young and old. boards of food and shared plates show people eating.

If you hate sharing plates at restaurants, you’re not alone. Sharing plates was something I used to avoid at all costs, which became a problem as more and more restaurants pushed tapas style meals. Recently, though, I’ve begun to change my tune. In research with my collaborator, Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago, we found that diners receive a key benefit from sharing food, which now has me suggesting to share plates at dinner more often than not.

We were curious whether sharing plates might influence coordination and cooperation between diners. We reasoned that sharing plates could have one of two effects. On the one hand, sharing plates could cause people to compete over the food items. This would mean that sharing plates might increase a competitive mindset compared with eating from separate plates, and that competitiveness might spill over even after the meal has ended.

Yet, on the other hand, sharing plates involves coordination and cooperation, which is a more common experience than competing over the last bite of guacamole. To share plates successfully, diners need to take turns eating and need to attend to other diners’ needs – what they eat and how much they consume. So perhaps the coordination required to share plates facilitates coordination and cooperation afterward.

To understand how eating from shared plates affects diners, we conducted a series of experiments. In our studies, we had pairs of research participants eat food from either separate plates or shared plates. Then we measured how much they cooperated with each other during a negotiation.   

For example, in one study, we gave pairs of strangers chips and salsa to eat, but some pairs ate from a shared container, and other pairs ate from their own individual bowls. Afterward, the two strangers took part in a simulation of a tense wage negotiation. In this negotiation exercise, more successful pairs resolve the conflict more quickly, going into fewer days of strike, so we could tell how cooperative participants were by how long the negotiation lasted. Our results showed that pairs of participants who first ate food from shared plates settled their negotiation faster than with pairs who ate from separate plates. So, eating from the same plate led people to be more cooperative.

A second study replicated this finding among pairs of friends and strangers who ate goldfish crackers from either shared or separate bags. Although pairs of friends tended to resolve the negotiation faster than pairs of strangers, sharing food improved negotiation outcomes for both strangers and friends. People felt more coordinated socially when sharing food, and this feeling of coordination carried over after the meal, leading people to behave more cooperatively during the negotiation.

In a third study, we measured cooperation in a new way. Pairs of strangers first ate goldfish crackers from either shared or separate bags before playing an airline pricing game. In this game, participants acted as “airline executive” with the job of setting weekly route prices for their airline. For each of 20 “weeks,” which were actually 20 rounds in this exercise, participants chose whether to compete or cooperate with the other person. Sharing a single bag of goldfish increased the rate of cooperation across the 20 rounds compared with eating from separate bags.

Our research shows that eating from shared plates requires coordination, and that coordination while eating then facilitates cooperation afterwards. That’s good news not only if you’re negotiating but also if you’re sitting down to a family style meal at home or ordering shared plates with your colleagues.


For further reading:

Shared Plates, Shared Minds: Consuming From a Shared Plate Promotes Cooperation

A Recipe for Friendship: Similar Food Consumption Promotes Trust and Cooperation

Kaitlin Woolley is an assistant professor of marketing at Cornell University.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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