One Way to Make First Dates Just a Little Less Painful

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Photo: George Marks

First dates are already miserable enough without the food. There’s the fine line between filling all the awkward silences and prattling endlessly; the pressure of making a good first impression, and the worry that you’re oblivious to how you’re actually coming off (you probably are); the jerky almost-flail of reaching, or faux-reaching, for your wallet when it comes time to pay for whatever it is you’re doing. But if that thing happens to be a meal, there’s a whole additional set of things to worry about: spills, little dark flecks that lodge themselves in your teeth, the cruel fact that the things that taste the best also tend to make your breath smell the worst. Why pick an activity that only sets you up for more faux pas?

Because, as psychologists from the University of Chicago recently reported, there’s actually a pretty good perk to the dinner date — so long as you make sure to order an identical meal. In a forthcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the researchers found that eating the same thing at the same time is a relatively quick and easy way for two people to build up trust.

Over several game-like experiments, the study authors compared interactions between people who had been served the same snack to people who had munched on different things. In one experiment, for example, they gave one person some money and told them it would double if they handed it over to a partner — with the caveat that the partner could then give back as much or as little as they wanted. In the other, they paired people up for a role-playing exercise in negotiation, with one person acting as a union leader and another as a company manager.

In both cases, cooperation was higher — the subjects shared their money more often, or settled the hypothetical strike more quickly — if both members of the pair had eaten the same thing first, a piece of knowledge that’s worth tucking away for your next awkward meal: “Consumers can be strategic in the food they consume,” the study authors wrote, “utilizing food as a social lubricant when eating dinner on a date or when out for lunch with a colleague.” Your date might not order exactly what you want, but sometimes, it’s better to ignore your cravings and take any help you can get.