Boost Cooperation One Shared Plate at a Time


By Yvonne Milosevic

As anyone who dines out on the regular knows, sharing plates is in. But did you know that nibbling off the same dish has business benefits, too?

Kinda obvi, but sharing plates requires people to coordinate their physical actions. Otherwise, you might accidentally stab your dinner companion as you go for that last bacon-wrapped scallop.

Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business suspected that plate-sharing might also prompt people to coordinate their negotiations. Could sharing a plate lead to better negotiation outcomes?

Booth Professor Ayelet Fishbach and Cornell University’s Kaitlin Woolley, a Booth Ph.D. student at the time of the research, asked study participants—all strangers to one another—to pair off in a lab experiment that involved negotiating.

They then invited the participants to have a snack of chips and salsa with their partners. Half of the pairs received one bowl of chips and one bowl of salsa to share, while the others each had their own dishes.

Next came the negotiation scenario. One person in each pair acted as management and the other as a union representative. Their goal? To arrive at an acceptable wage for the union within 22 rounds of negotiation.

Each round represented one day of negotiations. A costly union strike would start on the third round. The costs of the strike added up quickly for both sides, giving the parties motivation to reach an agreeable deal ASAP.

Okay, but don’t double-dip

Teams with shared bowls took nine strike days, on average, to reach a deal. Pairs with individual servings of chips and salsa needed four more days to reach an agreement. This difference saved both parties a combined—if hypothetical—$1.5 million in losses.

The result, the researchers write, had nothing to do with how the two people in a negotiating team felt about each other. What mattered was how well they coordinated their eating. Sharing food from a single plate increased perceived coordination among diners. This led them to behave more cooperatively and less competitively toward each other compared with individuals eating the same food from separate plates.

Woolley and Fishbach repeated the experiment with both friends and strangers. As expected, friends came to a negotiation agreement faster than strangers did. But, sharing plates had a significant effect on both groups.

With today’s technology, virtual meetings are pretty standard. But Fishbach finds great value in getting together over a meal. “Basically, every meal that you’re eating alone is a missed opportunity to connect to someone,” says Fishbach. “And every meal that involves food sharing fully utilizes the opportunity to create that social bond.”

The next time you need a negotiation to go smoothly, try doing it over a shared plate of nachos. You might reach a favorable agreement before you get down to the last chip.