When someone you're eating dinner with reaches across the table and grabs a few of your fries without consent, most of us bristle, and some of us turn into a pissed off lioness straight out of the animal kingdom. Sharing food is an intimate gesture, and it's not always a welcome one.
But, why do some people feel like they can go ahead and take another person's food, while others fiercely guard their meals and hate sharing? It depends on a few factors, but looking at how other animals handle food can give us some clues about this relatable human quirk.
According to Jennifer Verdolin, PhD, an animal behavior researcher specializing in social and mating behavior, sharing food is indicative of a close relationship, because food is considered a resource. "The better the resource, the less likely you are to want to share it," she says. "Especially if it is hard to come by." For example, your side order of fries may seem delicious and also scarce, so you really do not want to let it get gobbled up.
Now, if you don't offer fries to the people at your table, and they take them anyway, that is considered a sign of dominance, Dr. Verdolin says. "And that is irksome," she says. Unless, the person stealing fries is someone you're already close with.
Sharing food with a good friend or romantic partner may actually strengthen your relationship. Studies on chimpanzees suggest that sharing food releases oxytocin in both the giver and the receiver, which facilitates bonding. "The release amplifies emotions, and creates a feedback loop," Dr. Verdolin says. So, in theory, if you willingly share food with your date or a member of your family, it may produce a feedback loop that keeps you coming back for more.
With your family members, you may be more inclined to share, simply because you're related, Dr. Verdolin says. "Although, if you notice, many offspring do not like it when their parents take their food," she says. Parents stealing bites of their kid's food may be their way of showing dominance, and on the other hand, you rarely see adults sharing food with each other. Sometimes if it's a family member (like a sibling or older relative), you may decide that it's not worth it to get into a fight about it, she says.
In some cases, you may not care at all who takes some of your food, either because the food isn't that good, or because you're also getting some food from the person, Dr. Verdolin says. "Notice, though, that this usually only feels okay if both foods are desirable to both parties," she says. In other words, if your dinner mate is offering you something that you don't like, then it's worthless to share. This can explain why ordering small plates for multiple people to share requires so much negotiation, Dr. Verdolin says.
Ultimately, human beings are a little more advanced than most animals, so the way we interact with food is certainly more complex. Everyone has different feelings around food, and it's important to be sensitive about the fact that someone may not share your same attitude. And, if you are someone who knows you hate to share food, then the best way to avoid drama next time you're at a dinner is order fries for the whole table.