Wanna Grab a Bite? A Scientific Study of Lunch

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Psychologically speaking, lunch is a strange phenomenon. Walking around Mitte in the afternoon on the search for sustenance, I come across plenty of others doing the same. They can be classified into several groups.

There are the lonewolves, navel-gazing and pale, the seeming kin of supernatural or subterranean phantoms. They eat alone in restaurants or parks but are not really present.

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Then there are the penguins – hardly different from the phantoms other than their pack behavior and well-organized movement in groups. They eat together, pay together, and walk at a pace neither too fast nor too slow. As colleagues, the relational dynamic plateaues somewhere between a bit more than merely inevitable, yet a bit less than truly intimate.

Another group are the islanders, who, insofar as they’re not on vacation by default (as students, the unemployed, or writers), create their personal afternoon island. They meet up with friends, family, lovers, or flings and really do listen to the music playing at the Italian joint. They select from the menu carefully, visibly enjoy what they’ve ordered and toss their hair back while laughing.

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In stark opposition to the islanders is a species you don’t run into on the street but you know is out there: the workaholics. They grab a sandwich and scarf it down in front of the computer. They’re the ones with an important project on their desk, a baby they can’t leave alone for too long. Here it’s not just a matter of time or physical distance but mental distance as well. They stare at the screen while eating to make sure no thoughts from the morning escape them, and to keep their brains at work while the rest of them eats. We know they exist because, let’s face it, we’ve all been there at one point.

Fortunately, a group of scientists tackled lunch in a study and substantiated what everyone already knows. The study is very interesting. Looking at the last two of our four types, it deals with whether or not common eating situations influence cognitive and emotional processes. Half of the participants went out to eat in a restaurant where they could establish their own islands in peace. The other half of the participants had twenty minutes to eat alone at a desk in an undecorated office. Before and after their meals they were asked to solve some problems.

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Especially intriguing was the participant selection: “Thirty-two women were assigned in equal numbers to the experimental or control group. Women were selected as participants to simplify the procedure and the interpretation of results.” The pre-experiment instructions were reasonable: “Participants were advised to get enough sleep in the nights preceding the test sessions and not to consume unusual amounts of alcohol the evening before the test.” Apparently all participants complied; however, one woman had to be excluded from the study because she ate less than 60% of her meal. Sometimes science has to be tough to accomplish its objectives.

On the basis of various brain wave measurements, researchers ultimately found that those who eat with company in a good restaurant are more relaxed afterwards. They are also less sensitive about their own mistakes and those of others, that is: they’re upbeat. And good moods, (if you believe yet another study) are good for creativity. The workaholics, however, performed significantly better than the restaurant goers in cognitive problem-solving and reacted strongly to making mistakes. They’re all wound up.

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No news here, yet some questions remain. Scientists want to continue their research, having proposed the creation of lunch situations in employee cafeterias customized to the specific work demands of those eating. Just imagine business people and mathematicians locked alone in small cells devoid of sharp objects while artists, musicians and architects are being served grapes and juicy meat to live music. In the second scenario, flirting would abound, as would hair tossing.

Our two cents: the scientific perspective is interesting but one-sided. If we were to see to it that the business-minded become more creative, maybe the world would be a better place. As for locking artists in sad spaces: no grief, no art.

In the end, a question still lingers: which jobs could explain the behavior of the phantoms and the penguins.

Source: Sommer W, Stürmer B, Shmuilovich O, Martin-Loeches M, Schacht A (2013) How about Lunch? Consequences of the Meal Context on Cognition and Emotion.PLoS ONE 8(7): e70314. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0070314
Images: prakhsisbonappetitpictiliosnellsoftware

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