Sensing eating mimicry among family members


Family relationships influence eating behavior and health outcomes (e.g., obesity). Because eating is often habitual (i.e., automatically driven by external cues), unconscious behavioral mimicry may be a key interpersonal influence mechanism for eating within families. This pilot study extends existing literature on eating mimicry by examining whether multiple family members mimicked each other’s bites during natural meals. Thirty-three participants from 10 families were videotaped while eating an unstructured family meal in a kitchen lab setting. Videotapes were coded for participants’ bite occurrences and times. We tested whether the likelihood of a participant taking a bite increased when s/he was externally cued by a family eating partner who had recently taken a bite (i.e., bite mimicry). A paired-sample t-test indicated that participants had a significantly faster eating rate within the 5 s following a bite by their eating partner, compared to their bite rate at other times (t = 7.32, p < .0001). Nonparametric permutation testing identified five of 78 dyads in which there was significant evidence of eating mimicry; and 19 of 78 dyads that had p values < .1. This pilot study provides preliminary evidence that suggests eating mimicry may occur among a subset of family members, and that there may be types of family ties more prone to this type of interpersonal influence during meals.

In Translational Behavioral Medicine