Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Dig in!"

One fine afternoon, I was waiting for some friends to join me for lunch. The girl seated beside me was happily chomping away at her blueberry bagel. I quickly averted my eyes so that the sight of food wouldn't set my stomach off rumbling with hunger. After a couple of minutes, seemingly satisfied with having eaten half of her bagel, the girl put the other half in the bag and threw it rather carelessly on the table in front of her. Fifteen minutes passed and she showed no further interest in her bagel. Meanwhile, my hunger was slowly reaching its threshold, and I felt increasingly resentful about this girl unnecessarily wasting her bagel. And then I thought to myself--what if people offered other people food they can’t finish? It’s certainly an absurd situation, and perhaps not so sanitary, but most importantly it is a social norm violation, the topic for my research paper for Social Psychology. Most people are more than willing to lend someone a piece of paper or a pencil, but it is a rarity to offer food or drink when requested, let alone voluntarily. It is most probably the fact that meals are something every person looks forward to in a busy day of classes or work. Thus, the prospect of sharing food, that too with a complete stranger is understandably not very appealing.

I tried my experiment on college students at Houston Hall and on middle-aged people in the food court next to CVS. In Houston Hall, most people gave me very strange looks; some girls even moved their things closer to them and continued to shoot me suspicious glances well after the moment had passed. Some males actually accepted the food and even asked for more. However, considering the college student’s obsession with free food, I thought despite the impact of my norm violation, more people would accept my offer. In the food court, not a single subject accepted the food and I almost got yelled at by a man who looked very unhappy with his slice of pizza from Famiglia.

My experiment gave me a lot of insight into how our society is so tightly regulated by norms. Norms are essential to maintain harmony between human beings and promote mutual understanding. Perhaps this is why conformity is so hard to break, as was proven by subjects in the public food court. Subjects who had seen me asking their neighbors definitely seemed prepared with a suspicious glare and a “No, thank you”. The normative influence of surrounding people prevented people from accepting my food even if they wanted to. What I found most surprising, however, was that hardly anyone perceived my offer as an act of generosity- my deviant behavior evidently overshadowed that aspect. Imagine a life where everyone shared their food, and all the different flavors of the world flowed freely- utopia?-perhaps. Unlikely? -definitely. I think this calls for a revolution on food- “Dig in!”

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