The servers have just delivered eight beautifully prepared dishes, ranging from a decadent buffalo chicken panini to a luscious Cobb salad, and we're all ready to dig in when one of the diners at the table yells, "WAIT! I need a photo first!"
As a table of millennials, we're used to this course of events. Everyone eagerly anticipates the arrival of the food. When it arrives, we remove our cell phones from their hidden holes (okay, I mean pick them up off the table where they're sitting) and with great ceremony snap photos of our plates from every angle and side possible. (Bonus points if you get another diner's food in the corner of your pic so you can show that you're not eating alone.)
We're a crowd all under the age of 32. We all happen to work for a food magazine, too, so our proclivity toward sharing food photos on Instagram is probably stronger than the average restaurant diner—and it was certainly stronger than the table of retirees who stared at us in amazement that day.
Sharing photos on Instagram is relatively new in human history, but it has quickly become a part of everyday dining experiences. Jealous Instagrammers will flock to restaurants and pop-ups to snap photos of coveted foods (we're looking at you, cronut). In some ways, food sharing on social sites has embodied a "If you don't 'gram it, it didn't happen" mindset.
As it turns out, the food porn you're generating has many more benefits than just garnering likes for your foodie pursuits. A study released last week in the Journal of Consumer Marketing found that sharing your food photos on social media sites (i.e. Instagram) actually enhances your overall experience when you eat the foods. In other words, taking a photo of the food you're about to eat may actually make it taste better.
In three separate studies, researchers found that people who were asked to both photograph, share, and then eat an indulgent food reported enjoying the food much more than a person who did not share the photo on social media. In the same studies, people who either ate healthy food or ate an indulgent food that they were told had been made healthier (such as a quick bread that substituted applesauce for oil or ground flaxseed for eggs) did not have a better food experience, even if they did share their photos on social media. (Big bummer for healthy foods...)
Where healthy diners do get a boost in flavor comes in the community aspect of social sharing. When participants in the study were made aware that other individuals were photographing and enjoying the same healthy foods they were about to photograph and enjoy (think: trending hashtags), the pleasurable experience of eating the healthy food was higher than those who did not receive the information. So all those #chiaseedpudding photos you've been ogling on Instagram? If you make your own, snap a 'gram, and then post it, you might enjoy it much more than a person who has no idea it's such a trend.
So how could photographing your food possibly make you enjoy it more? An earlier study can help answer that question. In 2013, a study in Psychological Science found that individuals who wait before eating build greater anticipation for their first bite. Plus, there's the whole "we eat first with our eyes" issue. When your food comes out and you immediately grab the phone, you're setting up a beautiful photo shoot, proving to others just how delicious your meal is about to be. In that moment you're both building your own excitement with your beautiful photo and delaying your moment of gratification. It's a double win for enjoying your food more.
All this begs the question: Does this mean it's okay to have our phones at the table now? In recent months, restaurants have been making a big push to have fewer phones at their dining tables. A Chick-fil-A operator started a "Cell Phone Coop" program at his Georgia restaurant. Diners are encouraged to lock away cell phones in a "chicken coop," and if the whole family successfully completes their meal without once looking at their phones, each person receives a free ice cream cone. An Iowa chicken restaurant gives diners a discount on Wednesday nights if they put their phones in a special box during the whole meal. Some restaurants have strict "no photography" policies in place and actively discourage you from having your phone out at all. While those intentions are honorable and good, maybe restaurant marketing managers could benefit from a few more snap-happy 'grammers at their tables, especially given this news.
Either way, from now on when you bring out your phone to snap a picture of your plate, you can let other perturbed diners know you're just doing it to enhance your experience. And that's science!