It Is All About The Food

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Something tells me that being a foodie if not a chef should be part of the job description of a mediator. About a month ago, I wrote about a study that showed how one’s grumpiness and thus willingness to settle disputes depends on the level of one’s blood sugar; the grumpier one is, the greater the likelihood that one wants to stick pins in a voodoo doll representing the opposing party.(See, “It’s All in the Blood Sugar“)

I have now come upon another study indicating that when trying to settle a dispute, it makes a difference whether the opposing parties share a common plate of food such as chips and salsa or are given individual plates of food.

In a May 20, 2014 blog posting on the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School’s website (, Katie Shonk discusses a study conducted by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Margaret Neale and doctoral student Peter Belmi. They found “… that whether we are likely to reap benefits from negotiations conducted in the presence of food depends on the type of bargaining situation we are facing- as well as the way the food is served”:

Neale and Belmi told negotiators they were facing either a competitive situation or a cooperative one. Some pairs were given food to share while they negotiated; other pairs were given individual portions of food. (Apples and caramel sauce were used in one experiment, and chips and salsa in another.)

Interestingly, for those facing a competitive negotiation, shared food, but not individual portions, helped them create significantly more value. By contrast, those facing a cooperative situation created less value when given food to share.

Why the difference? Neale and Belmi theorized that the juxtaposition of a social ritual that suggests cooperation-namely, shared food-creates a disconnect with task of negotiating competitively. That disconnect inspires people to pay more attention to one another and look for opportunities to create value.

Meanwhile, when negotiators are focused on cooperating with one another, shared food can create a relaxed, familiar atmosphere. Consequently, negotiators may become more concerned about maintaining the friendly relationship than with reaching the best deal possible.

The results suggest that when you are dealing with a particularly competitive negotiator, looking to break an impasse, or dealing with conflict, it might be a good time to pass some appetizers or visit a restaurant where it’s common to share dishes – Spanish tapas, Ethiopian food, or Asian cuisines might be good choices. But in negotiations with someone you know well, you might pass on eating entirely or at least order your own food. (Id.)

So… during a negotiation, food matters and how it is shared, matters even more so. If you find yourself in a distributive bargaining situation (that is, “fixed pie” or “zero sum game” or “I win you lose”), bring out a large bowl of popcorn or salsa and chips for everyone to nosh on while they discuss the issues. You will get better results!

…. Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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