SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Does food actually taste worse when we're dining alone? Recent research suggests solitude negatively affects our enjoyment of food, but finds we can counter the effect by positioning a mirror or a photo of ourselves where we can see it. The findings, from researchers at Japan's Nagoya University, will be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Physiology & Behavior.
Rebecca Ratner, associate dean for Academic Affairs and professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, says the research demonstrates the power of solitude.
"For many people, going out to dinner alone requires a Herculean effort of personal bravery," she says. Ratner's research on venturing out alone has been widely cited in the news media and published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Her research, with co-author Rebecca Hamilton from Georgetown University, explores the striking inhibitions that many people have about dining alone, traveling alone, going to a cultural event alone, even bowling alone.
These days, as people marry later and as dual-career couples balance the demands of family and work life, people increasingly face the quandary of attending an event alone or missing it altogether.
In their research, Ratner and Hamilton surveyed people and found that they were averse to do fun things alone, but had no problem running errands, working out or doing other utilitarian stuff alone. With cross-cultural surveys of people from the United States, India and China, the researchers discovered that the reticence stems at least in part from a worry that strangers who saw them out alone would think they lacked friends.
Ratner and Hamilton then conducted a real-life experiment, approaching people who were walking on a university campus and asking whether they'd be interested in exploring an art exhibition. Some of the people were walking alone, others were walking with a friend.
As expected, the people who were alone expressed less interest in going to the art show. But when they were prodded to actually stroll through the exhibition, the solo art viewers enjoyed themselves about as much as those who went with a friend. (How much they expected to enjoy the exhibition varied whether they perceived viewing art as fun or utilitarian.)
The findings present some useful insights for the hospitality sector and other businesses that are hoping to appeal to solo consumers for off-duty pursuits.
Small adjustments in restaurant dining rooms could also make a difference. "Restaurants usually have tables set for four or for two," Ratner says. "What if they had tables set for one?"
Ratner suggests that solo visitors be given a task to perform: reviewing meals they eat in restaurants, perhaps, or "collecting" all the plays in a theatrical season.
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