Does Your Sweetheart Influence Your Sweet Tooth?
Does who you are with have an effect on what you choose to eat? Here’s an experiment adapted from a study on food choices in a romantic to try with your partner.
A Valentine’s Day Experiment
In this experiment, you and your partner are going to imagine going out together for a special meal at a fancy restaurant to celebrate your anniversary.
Spend about two minutes separately writing down a few loving and caring behaviors that you can imagine your partner exhibiting during this dinner date.
Now, look at the following menu, which consists of four sections. Each person gets to select one menu item from each section.
- Grilled Eggplant
- Chicken Florentine
- Sirloin Steak
- Five-Cheese Lasagna
- Brown Rice
- Grilled Seasonal Vegetables
- French Fries
- Mozzarella Sticks
- Raspberry Sorbet
- Scoop of Ice Cream
- Chocolate Lava Cake
- Iced Tea
Imagine that your partner orders first and selects the grilled eggplant and vegetables, with watermelon for dessert and a glass of water to drink. (These might not be your partner’s typical preferences, but imagine that they have decided to eat on the healthy side for this meal.)
Now, it’s time to make your own selections. Separately write down one item from each of the four sections to represent your meal.
Once both of you have written down your selections, reveal your choices.
Men, you are likely to have been influenced by the fact that your partner selected from among the most healthy options (at least in the imaginary scenario). It’s likely that you selected either the first or second menu item in each category.
Women, your menu choices are not as likely to have been influenced by the choices attributed to your partner in the imaginary scenario. You are about equally likely to have chosen healthy or unhealthy menu items.
A 2017 study examined how romantic couples influence each other’s food choices.
In one experiment, participants were asked to imagine going out on a date with their partner and were asked to envision their partner exhibiting loving and caring behaviors, which helped emphasize their commitment and the security of their established relationship.
Next, they were asked to imagine their partner selecting either healthy or unhealthy options from a restaurant menu, and then they made their own food choices from the same menu.
The researchers found that men were likely to mirror the healthfulness of their partner’s selections; when the partner was said to have made unhealthy selections, men made unhealthy selections as well, and when the partner was said to have made healthy selections, men made healthy selections as well.
In contrast, women did not appear to engage in mirroring behavior. Whether their partner was said to have made healthy or unhealthy selections didn’t seem to influence the healthfulness of the women’s choices.
These results held true when participants were primed to think about their established, loving relationships.
But participants who were asked instead to imagine a first date with someone new showed markedly different behavior.
Women tended to mirror the healthfulness of their date’s choices, while men tended to make choices that were the opposite of those of their date, opting for healthy foods when their date’s choices were unhealthy and unhealthy foods when their date’s choices were healthy.
So what’s going on? Why do people make different food choices depending on whether they’re trying to form or maintain a relationship, and why do men and women exhibit different behaviors?
It’s About The Messages We Want To Send
The researchers suggest that it boils down to the signals we want to send to our dining partner.
When a relationship is starting out, men tend to make choices that signal power and independence, and ordering an item like a steak when their date orders a salad can help signal that. Women, on the other hand, tend to make choices that signal agreeableness, and mirroring their partner’s choices is one way to appear agreeable.
On the other hand, once a relationship has been established, men tend to be more influenced by their partner’s food choices than women are. One possible explanation the researchers offer for this change in behavior is that women tend to be perceived as having more expertise in matters of diet and nutrition, and men defer to that expertise when they have less of a need to assert power and independence.
If you’re in a happy, established relationship, you likely eat a lot of meals together. So being aware of what motivates your and your partner’s food choices can help you better understand helpful and unhelpful influences and put you on the path to healthy eating.
Women, keep in mind that your partner may tend to defer to you in matters of diet. So making healthy food choices can benefit both you and your partner.
And men, if your partner tends to make unhealthy food choices, your own decision to eat more healthy foods may not necessarily influence her to change her diet. But by consciously avoiding mirroring behavior, you will be better able to stick to a healthy diet yourself.
Bear in mind that signaling through food choices and gender-based preferences and behavior vary widely from couple to couple. So, rather than relying on subtle cues, perhaps the best way to understand the dynamics that affect your food choices is through direct communication. Talk to your partner about what motivates their food choices. And how you, as a couple, can agree on meals that you both enjoy and that are aligned with your priorities and diet-related goals.
EXPERIMENT ADAPTED FROM:
Hasford, Jonathan, Blair Kidwell, and Virginie Lopez-Kidwell. “Happy wife, happy life: Food choices in romantic relationships.” Journal of Consumer Research 44.6 (2017): 1238-1256.
LOOKING FOR MORE?
Experiments for Newlyweds: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform with Your Spouse. Perfect for nerdy newlyweds, engaged couples, or anybody who wants to deepen their partnership. This book will lead you to some exciting breakthroughs of your own!
This guest post was authored by Shaun Gallagher
Shaun Gallagher was a newlywed in 2007 and is now the father of three ongoing science experiments. He is the author of Experimenting with Babies and forthcoming Experiments for Newlyweds. Gallagher is a writer and a former magazine and newspaper editor. His work and books have been featured in Forbes, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Parents.