Creative Inquiry

Project Spotlights

Appetite versus Attraction

From just a short distance away, it looks like Sally and John are really hitting it off. Sally, a cheery blonde, wears a simple white dress and a dazzling smile. Soon it is time to order. Sally: a neat Mediterranean salad, light dressing, hold the cheese. John: steak, medium-rare, roasted potatoes and green beans. And for dessert? Well, they found out they have a mutual fondness for chocolate cheesecake. Destiny? Perhaps. How about they share a slice?

According to psychologists in the field of social cognition, there are many indications that Sally and John aren't close cousins or coworkers engaging in an important business meeting. When you look at their nonverbal communication, all the signs are there-but what was the biggest hint? Dr. Thomas Alley and his Creative Inquiry team in the psychology department at Clemson believe that the answer lies in the food. Well, the sharing of food.

"People are way more likely to think people are attracted to each other if there is feeding," Alley said. "Anytime somebody gives some of their resources to another person you're likely to assume there is some form of intimacy."

Alley believes that the idea for the project evolved about five years ago when he and a group of anthropologists were dining in Prague, discussing the different ways in which people perceive various eating habits-one of them food sharing. With help from a team of students, Alley then began a video research experiment. The 30 second videos showed two actors, one male and one female, eating together. In some videos there was food sharing in different ways such as the woman feeding the man and vice-versa. Food contamination was also taken into account such as whether or not a person had taken a nibble of something before offering it to someone else.

Students were then asked to rate how well the couple knew each other, whether the pair would grow closer or more distant over time, and overall, how much attraction there Students were then asked to rate how well the couple knew each other, whether the pair would grow closer or more distant over time, and overall, how much attraction there

Based on this previous research, Alley and his team have done similar replications of the video projects as well as real-life observations. Students sat in dining locations in downtown Clemson and several other towns and anonymously observed couples who looked to be above the age of 18. "After they were done eating they would be approached and asked to fill out a survey," Alley said. The survey consisted of questions asking about the nature of their relationship, and the results were strikingly similar to that of the video experiments.

But why? Alley believes that this behavior may be linked to our prehistoric ancestors. "Food sharing has had a major impact on survival" Alley said. "While humans were the hunter/gatherers, there was a constant need to provide for one another." But interestingly enough, the gender of the food-sharer was something that did affect results. When the video experiment included a man feeding a woman, he was rated as being more attracted to her compared with the video of the woman feeding the man. Alley suggests that this might be due to the stereotype that men are the providers. This behavior is something that has been observed in other species. "It is part of mate selection."

And what about food contamination? Alley's hypothesis is that it is similar to mouth-to-mouth kissing. "It's kind of a test!" he laughed. "It's to see whether or not there will be rejection or acceptance. It's a good way to move the relationship forward."

In addition to studying contaminated food-sharing, Alley and his team hope to also address other questions about this behavior. "It would be interesting to know whether or not the results are the same for people from different cultures and backgrounds," Alley said. "Nobody's really looked at this stuff before, but it's important to think about how certain things impact what people think about each other." From a short distance away, you can tell a lot about Sally and John. And with one bite, and an appetite for knowledge, we are learning more and more that communication is key.

By: Marissa Kozma (Decipher Issue 2, Fall 2013)