Negotiation over Dinner

Sharing a plate of food leads to more successful negotiations

Share not just a meal but a plate for a better and faster deal

The psychology of eating together

Psychologists think a meal like this is a good first step towards improving relations, especially when cooperation and sharing are involved in eating.

As Kaitlin Woolley of Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago report in Psychological Science, a meal taken “family-style” from a “central platter” can greatly improve the outcome of subsequent negotiations.

Having conducted previous research in 2017 revealing that eating similar foods led to people feeling emotionally closer to one another, Woolley and Fishbach wondered whether the way in which food was served also had a psychological effect. They theorized that, on the one hand, sharing food with other people might indicate food scarcity and increase a notion of competition.

However, they also reasoned that it could instead lead people to become more aware of others’ needs and drive co-operative behaviour as a result. Curious to find out, they set up a series of experiments.

For the first test they recruited 100 pairs of participants from a local café, none of whom knew each other. In return for a $3 gift card and a chance to win $50 based upon their performance during a negotiation game, the participants were sat at a table and fed tortilla chips with salsa. Half the pairs were given their own basket of 20 grams of chips and a bowl of 25 grams of salsa, and half were given 40 grams of chips and 50 grams of salsa to share. As a cover for the experiment, all participants were told this snack was to be consumed before the game began.

The game required the participants to negotiate an hourly wage rate during a fictional strike. Each person was randomly assigned to represent the union or management and follow a set of rules.

The researchers measured co-operation by noting the number of rounds it took to reach an agreement, and found that those who shared food resolved the strike significantly faster (in 8.7 rounds) than those who did not (13.2 rounds). A similar experiment was conducted with 104 participants and Goldfish crackers, this time negotiating an airline’s route prices. The results were much the same, with the food-sharers negotiating successfully 63.3% of the time and those who did not share doing so 42.9% of the time.

To see if food-sharing among friends worked in the same way as it did among strangers, Woolley and Fishbach ran their strike experiment again with 240 people, partnering together two friends or two strangers. Regardless of whether the pairs were friends or strangers, those who shared food went into fewer rounds during the game, averaging 6.4 rounds, than those who did not share food, averaging 9.8. Friendship did have an effect, though. Whether they shared food or not, friends were generally more co-operative.

Another research by Lakshmi Balachandra of Babson College

Should You Eat While You Negotiate?

Across cultures, dining together is a common part of the process of reaching negotiated agreements. In Korea and many Asian countries, business relationships start with dining and drinking before serious business discussions. In Canada and USA, many people begin with “Let’s do lunch” or “Let’s break bread together.”

But are business deals actually improved when people discuss important matters over a meal or after a meal?

To explore this question, Balachandra conducted two experiments. The first compared negotiations that took place over a meal in restaurants to negotiations in conference rooms, without any food to eat. In the second, negotiations were conducted with or without a meal in a business conference room. In the experiments, 132 MBA students negotiated a complex joint venture agreement between two companies. In the simulation, a provisional deal is in place, but a variety of terms must still be considered and agreed upon to maximize profits for their companies. The negotiators must determine how to handle each term of the deal. As is typical in many negotiations, in order to maximize their profits, the negotiators must share information and work together with the other side to learn where the most value can be created.

The greatest possible profits were created by the parties who were able to discern the other side’s preferences and then work collectively to discover the profit maximizing outcomes for the joint venture, rather than merely considering their own company’s profits. In the simulation, this can only be accomplished when the negotiators make trade-offs and then compensate each other from the net gains to the joint venture. The maximum value that can be created jointly for both companies is $75 million. Deals can be struck at lower combined values, down to as low as $38 million. To explore how eating together affected negotiation outcomes, I considered the total value created by both companies.

The students who ate together while negotiating — either at a restaurant or over food brought into a business conference room — created significantly increased profits compared to those who negotiated without dining. (Individuals who negotiated in restaurants created 12% greater profits and those who negotiated over food in a conference room created 11% greater profits.) This suggests that eating while deciding important matters offers profitable, measurable benefits through mutually productive discussions.

Balachandra designed a third experiment to test if it was in fact the act of eating together and not merely sharing a separate task that led to the better negotiated outcomes. Balachandra had 45 MBA students negotiate the same simulation, but instead of negotiating while eating, half of the groups negotiated while completing a jigsaw puzzle that had nothing to do with the negotiation. In this experiment, Balachandra found that the negotiators who shared a common task did not create better negotiation outcomes than those who only negotiated the deal.

Balachandra expected that both sharing a meal and collaborating on an activity would increase trust between the participants — and perhaps that the cultural history attached to eating together would increase trust more than sharing other activities — but when she surveyed participants in both studies, the trust levels they reported did not increase.

Why else might eating together improve the outcome of negotiations? There may be biological factors at work. When the negotiators in the first two studies ate, they immediately increased their glucose levels. Research has shown that the consumption of glucose enhances complex brain activities, bolstering self-control and regulating prejudice and aggressive behaviors. Other research
has shown that unconscious mimicking behaviors of others leads to increased pro-social behaviors; when individuals eat together they enact the same movements. This unconscious mimicking of each other may induce positive feelings towards both the other party and the matter under discussion.

More Korean BBQs together for world peace?