Seal the Deal…With a Meal?

Food may be the ultimate icebreaker in business, a new study says.
A new study suggests that people who ate the same foods established trust and closeness. (Photo:

Why does food bring us together? It’s a question Dr. Ayelet Fishbach, a social scientist at the University of Chicago, has pondered for years, and it’s led to some intriguing experiments that delve into the intricacies of human behavior and what motivates people to make certain decisions.

Fishbach’s most recent work, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that people who eat the same foods as the people they’re doing business with, whether it’s a snack during an investment meeting or a meal at a labor negotiation, end up trusting their new colleagues more and developing a closer bond.

“People tend to think that they use logic to make decisions, and they are largely unaware that food preferences can influence their thinking,” Fishbach said. “On a very basic level, food can be used strategically to help people work together and build trust.”

Dr. Ayelet Fishbach

Dr. Ayelet Fishbach is a social psychologist at the University of Chicago. (Photo: University of Chicago)

For the food study, Fishbach and her research team organized participants into pairs, then set up an investment game where each pair played the role of a fund manager doing business with a potential investor. Some pairs were assigned to eat the same candy before the game, while others ate different candy. The researchers discovered that the participants gave more money to the strangers when they had eaten the same type of candy.

To diversify their research, Fishbach et al conducted a second study in which pairs were assigned to opposing sides of a labor negotiation. Some pairs ate similar foods during the negotiations, while others ate different foods. The pairs that had eaten similar foods reached an agreement almost twice as quickly as the groups that had eaten dissimilar foods.

So why food? Why wouldn’t some other commonality, like hair color or professional background, help seal the deal?

To answer that question, the team included a comparative in the study, to see if two people trust each other more if they were wearing the same color shirt, instead of the same food.

The results, they say, were quite telling. The participants did not trust the similar shirt-wearer more than another shirt-wearer, regardless of the color. So, as in so many situations involving interpersonal communication, food really is the best icebreaker.

“I think food is powerful because it is something that we put into our bodies and we need to trust it in order to do that,” Fishbach said. “I hope our research will be used to connect people and facilitate conflict resolution.”

As for the best way to apply Fishbach’s research into your own business, experts say that depends on the type of business you’re running and your interactions with clients. But in many cases, supplying a little something to munch on to break the monotony of a meeting, and passing it around to ensure everyone feels welcome and engaged, sure can’t hurt.

And if you’re not sure which foods are best for your business’s atmosphere, there’s a great resource from Anese Cavanaugh, a business consultant who developed the IEP (Intentional Energetic Presence) method for professionals. She suggests foods that are gluten-free, are free of refined sugars and hard-to-pronounce ingredients, and contain healthy fats. Examples are avocado, olive oil, almond butter, walnuts, macadamia nuts and fresh vegetables.

But the important thing to remember, experts say, is not to offer too many options. You want to encourage similar food consumption, which could lead to increased trust and collaboration, says Kaitlin Woolley, one of the researchers who worked with Fishbach on the food study.

Their research also has implications from the consumer’s perspective. For example, if a job candidate is out to lunch with a potential employer, he/she can be strategic in what he/she orders to match the other person’s food consumption.

“We would expect her future employer to trust her more if the two ate similar foods than if they ordered different items, and this could translate into a possible job offer,” Woolley said.

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