The downside of a sociable lunch: Sub-par focus in the afternoon

Lunch at a restaurant with a friend could lessen the brain’s aptitude for detailed tasks back at work, a new study suggests. If an error-free afternoon is the goal, perhaps workers should consider hastily consuming calories alone at their desks.

Researchers have long thought that dining with others fosters mental well-being, cooperation and creativity. To test the effects of a midday social hour on the brain’s capacity to get through the workday, Werner Sommer and colleagues at Humboldt University in Berlin gave 32 students lunch in one of two settings and then tested their mental focus.

Half of the students enjoyed meals over a leisurely hour with a friend at a casual Italian restaurant. The other group picked up their meals from the same restaurant but had only 20 minutes to eat alone in a drab office. People who went out to lunch got to choose from a limited vegetarian menu; participants in the office group had meals that matched the choice of a member of the other group.

After lunch, the group that dined in bland solitude performed better on a task that assesses rapid decision-making and focus, the researchers reported last week in the journal PLOS One. Measurements of brain activity also suggested that the brain’s error-monitoring system might have been be running at sub-par levels in those who ate out.

Sommer acknowledges that several factors besides the meal context might have affected the results. For instance, the people who ate in the office had no choice of food and did not get to socialize, read or surf the Web.

The news is not all bad for those who dine out, Sommer says. Being less rigidly focused might come in handy when navigating sticky social situations or solving problems creatively. Sommer’s lab is testing the effects of social meals on workers’ creativity and generosity.

“Being a little less focused could be good or bad, depending on the situation,” says psychologist Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania. “If you’re running the control tower at the airport, you wouldn’t want this. But if you’re trying to think of a new idea, you might.”

— Science News