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Gastro diplomacy: The role of food in decision-making

Gastro diplomacy, the use of food to convey a specific message to others. A way to determine what is good by the throat. Their are questions around the relation between food and decision-making and social behavior: Can food be used as a tool of political persuasion? What role, if any, does the food we eat have over the decisions we reach? Do we bond with those with whom we happen to share a meal? And is it ever ethical to accept a free lunch? Can the provision of food be used to enhance creativity/productivity? Ultimately, what we eat plays a far more important role in cognition, decision-making, and impression formation than most people realize.


Humans and even animals have been sharing food for a long time. History has it that humans been social beings have been engaging in the ritualized sharing of food for a long time. In fact, some of the earliest evidence came from a burial cave in Israel, from around 12,000 years ago. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe that communal eating has played such a crucial role in our continued development precisely because of its ability to facilitate bonding and maintain social cohesion within groups of individuals.

According to Prof. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford colleague, “The act of eating together triggers the endorphin system in the brain and endorphins play an important role in social bonding in humans. Taking the time to sit down together over a meal helps create social networks that in turn have profound effects on our physical and mental health, our happiness and wellbeing and even our sense of purpose in life.”

Here, it is also interesting to consider the origin of the word “companion” from the Latin “cum pane” meaning the person you share bread with. Eating and drinking hold a special role in terms of fostering social relationships precisely because they involve bringing outside substances into the body. Over the centuries, various commentators have highlighted the relationship between gastronomy and diplomacy. Just take Jean-Anthelm Brillat-Savarin, writing in the early decades of the nineteenth century: “Read the historians, from Herodotus down to our own day, and you will see that there has never been a great event, not even excepting conspiracies, which was not conceived, worked out, and organized over a meal.” Or take the following from the Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti writing in the 1930s: “…great things have been achieved in the past by men who were poorly fed”. Yet, “what we think or dream or do is determined by what we eat and what we drink.”

Until recently, though, it was never clear quite how food could influence our decision-making. However, the latest research now unequivocally shows that sharing a meal result in more positive (affiliative) social interactions between those who dine together, not to mention fewer hierarchical displays of dominance and submissiveness (e.g., between employees and their bosses and between parents and their offspring).

In other words, agreeable behaviors were found to increase during meals, as compared to at other times. These, at least, were the major findings to have emerged from a recent study in which nearly 100 working individuals provided information on their everyday social interactions.

There was also a measurable increase in self-reported positive mood in those meetings that occurred while people were eating together. Organizations in the world have moments of feasting together some are met to create bonds or as a means of diplomacy when meeting and interacting. Some bosses use it to mole or gather momentum while world leaders use it to influence decisions.

Does food influence our decision-making?

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. As such, one might well imagine that the decisions we make should not be influenced by the foods we eat. However, it has been known for decades now that such a simplistic view of the human condition cannot be corrected.

Persuading people through their stomachs rather than through their minds?

Halvorson and Rudeleis were grappling with such issues when they interviewed a number of business folks Stateside back in the mid-1970s. Intriguingly, their research suggested that people did not expect that going to lunch with a client would necessarily lead directly to increased sales. On the other hand, though, it was also true to say that they were worried that if they did not do it, sales might well decline!

Should you find yourself taking a client out for a meal, then one important tip here is to make sure to order the same food as those whom you are trying to impress. Why so? Well, it turns out that “People who are served the same foods are more likely to trust one another, smooth out problems and make deals”.

The free lunch—the essence of smart management

In recent years, a number of companies have taken an innovative stance with regard to the provision of “free” food for their employees. Google is famous for this. Yet, they are by no means the only ones. According to a recent report, PixarAppleDropbox, and Yahoo all do the same.

Why so? Well, according to one Laszlo Bock, who wrote in Forbes Magazine, the strategic reason behind all that free food: “isn’t just to trick employees into staying on campus. Its purpose is actually to inspire innovative thinking. The purpose of the cafes closer to work stations is to create a place for employees to leave their desk and interact with other people whose desks are not near theirs. Bock reveals that most of these food sources are strategically placed between two separate work teams, and the goal of that placement is to draw these different folks together and nudge them to interact and collaborate. “At minimum, they might have a great conversation. And maybe they’ll hit on an idea for our users that hasn’t been thought of yet.””

Firefighters who showed increased levels of commensality exhibited better performance while on the job.

But does it matter what the food is?

The kind of food been served is as important as the nature of decisions reached. Over the last couple of years, researchers have taken a much closer look at taste and its influence on human reasoning and behavior. In particular, they have investigated the gustatory properties of foods, such as sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. For instance, researchers working out of the University of Innsbruck in Austria have demonstrated that people who taste something bitter (think grapefruit juice, beer, dark chocolate, unsweetened black coffee, or, worse still, cruciferous vegetables) tend to show increased hostility toward others. They also tend to judge morally objectionable acts more harshly. By contrast, tasting something sweet tends to make people feel just that little bit more romantic. It apparently also increases the likelihood of someone agreeing to go on a date.

Another idea here for those wanting to ensure that a meeting has the best chances of success would be to encourage the attendees to hold a warm mug or bowl in their hands. Think only of a nice hot cup of tea. Social psychologists have shown that those around us tend to look warmer more approachable whenever we happen to be holding something warm like a cup or mug. It reminds me of the attention we give Dr. Koleosho of humanities who comes to every morning lecture with a warm tea mug, as he teaches, he sips.

And, finally here, should you be having a business meeting with a quarrelsome party, then why not serve some tryptophan-rich foods such as eggs, cheese, pineapple, tofu, shrimps, salmon, turkey, nuts, and seeds. Tryptophan is a dietary precursor of serotonin and increasing the level of the latter in the brain, increases agreeableness. No surprises, then, that those who have been fed tryptophan-rich foods tend to be less quarrelsome.

via: NPR

What does the food we serve/eat say about us?

Over-and-above its role in bonding, mood enhancement, and decision-making, the food we serve/eat, or, in some cases, refuse to serve/eat, can also convey a message about us. Intriguingly, several governments, including those of France, Thailand, Peru, and Taiwan have slowly come around to the realization that they may be able to increase their influence abroad by providing their national dishes in foreign countries. This is what some call the exercise of “soft power”. Gastro-diplomacy—one stomach at a time!

Relevant here, shortly before the UK Brexit vote, a croissant-wielding French activist group was prevented from distributing croissants to the Brits in the capital in the hope of nudging any swing voters toward the Remain camp. If one was looking for a political slogan to capture this sort of approach, I would guess that it is more a case of “hearts and stomachs” than “hearts and minds”! In fact, according to one commentator: “Gastrodiplomacy is predicated on the notion that the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach.”

In this instance, though, the British police had other ideas. They rapidly intervened: “telling volunteers from the French capital it would be illegal to offer food in the run-up to an election because it could corrupt the result”. And, according to Britain’s Electoral Commission: “the efforts of the group, #operationcroissant, violate guidelines banning the use of food to influence votes”. We are back to the ethics of the free lunch!

Unsurprisingly, there is much interest and discussion concerning the foods chosen for EU and G7/G20 meetings. This is an important decision given the many countries involved, and the impression that the food served may give to those who are in attendance. The ultimate challenge here, though, in terms of gastronomic organization and satisfying national food preferences may well have been at the infamous festivities held by the Shah of Iran in Persepolis back in 1971 to celebrate 2500 years of the Iranian monarchy. Innumerable Heads of State from around the globe flew in for a celebration that reputedly cost close to £140 million. The gastronomic solution in this case involved bringing more than 160 chefs from Paris over especially for the event. The latter came armed with the best French wines and a ton of golden imperial caviar! Not everyone, it should be said, appreciated the invitation. The Queen apparently found the whole thing a little too tacky.

(Endnote)Political drinking and dining

Politicians need to be extremely careful about what they eat, or at least what they are seen to consume in public. If they are not, the gastronomic choices they make can all too easily end up alienating those whom they are trying to connect with, or convince. Without even realizing it, it can highlight a yawning gulf in terms of taste. There is, after all, no surer way of showing that a politician is different than by eating the wrong kind of food, or else by ordering something inappropriate. Politicians are often seen eating/drinking something much more sophisticated (and/or expensive) than those whom they represent, or seek to stand for, would ever dream of consuming. One of the classic examples of “what not to do” came from the early days of Sargent Shriver’s campaign in the US primaries back in 1972. With the media following closely in tow, the budding politician went to a small town bar (a working class tavern) to talk to the locals/voters. There he came out with the classic line: “Beer for the boys, and I’ll have a Courvoisier”. It should come as little surprise that his campaign hopes soon tanked. This, presumably, just the sort of situation that spin-doctors are paid handsomely these days to help politicians avoid. That said, it is worth noting here that there may be something fundamentally less intimate about sharing a drink than sharing a meal. For, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas once noted in a famous paper entitled: “Deciphering the meal, drinks require only mouth-touching utensils which are easily shared, while a hot meal, requiring at least one mouth-entering utensil, suggests a higher level of intimacy”.

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