The Reason Food Off Someone Else’s Plate Always Seems to Taste Better, According to Science

Sharing food can heighten your own perception of it.
Sharing food can heighten your own perception of it. / Jodie Griggs/The Image Bank via Getty Images

“Can I try that?” “Are you going to eat that?”

Part of the appeal in eating out is in not having to spend the time or effort preparing food or cleaning up after yourself. But there’s another, more subtle benefit: Food that comes off your dining partner’s plate invariably seems to taste exceptionally good. In some cases, even better than whatever you ordered. And there’s a good reason for that.

For a 2014 paper published in the journal Psychological Science [PDF], researchers at Yale enlisted 23 undergraduate students and gave them a rather pleasant scientific objective. They were asked to eat chocolate both in and out of the presence of a researcher, who feigned being a fellow study recruit. The objective was to determine whether their subjective enjoyment of the chocolate was influenced by someone eating it at the same time.

When the chocolate was eaten as a shared experience, participants reported enjoying it significantly more, rating it more pleasurable and better-tasting than subjects who ate it while their cohort was busy tending to another, non-chocolate-related task. This held true even when the two parties didn’t communicate their opinion of the chocolate.

A second, similar experiment was conducted, this time with a bitter chocolate. Again, subjects seemed to react to a social condition, reporting that it tasted worse when they knew someone else was eating the same thing. This, researchers believed, indicated that a shared experience has an effect even when the food is found to be unpleasant.

So what does all this show? It appears that sharing food results in an amplification of sensations. Knowing that someone else is having the same experience tends to focus our attention on the food as well as our feelings for the person eating the same thing. It’s not dissimilar to listening to the same song or watching the same movie and imagining how the other person is interpreting it, a behavior known as mentalizing. (“I wonder how my friend likes this scene …”) When you dwell on their reaction, you also focus more on your own.

“…We suspect that the effects obtained in the present experiments were caused by an increase in attention to the stimulus participants experienced together with the confederate,” researchers concluded. “Sharing the experience of eating chocolate caused people’s experiences to be more intense; this finding supports the idea that shared experiences have a greater psychological salience and impact than unshared experiences.”

So, yes, that swiped French fry is bound to taste good—provided you know the person. Grabbing it off a stranger’s plate is probably going to be a whole lot less pleasant.

[h/t Harvard Business Review]