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Biting Versus Chewing: Eating Style and Social Aggression in Children

Wansink, Brian, Francesca Zampollo, Guido Campes, and Mitsuru Shimizu (2014). Biting versus chewing: Eating style and social aggression in children. Eating Behaviors, 15(2), 311-313. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2014.03.013

As the nature of how and what we eat has become more refined over the years, the question of whether there is a relationship between eating habits and social behavior remains. Showing teeth is a well-known sign of aggression in the animal kingdom, but does the same hold true for humans?

Prior research has demonstrated that triggering certain facial muscles, such as biting down on a pencil to force a smile, can result in a change in mood and behavior. This study aimed to see if baring one’s teeth as a result of biting rather than just chewing food causes a measurable change in the behavior, specifically aggressiveness, or children.

To test this hypothesis, we served an afternoon snack of roasted chicken to 12 children between six and ten years of age at a summer camp on two separate days. Younger children were chosen for this experiment because they are less socialized and have lower levels of self-control than teenagers or adults. The children were split into two groups, with half of the group receiving chicken drumsticks and the other half receiving chicken that was deboned and cut into bite-sized pieces. On the second day during the following week, the eating conditions were reversed.

Before receiving their portion of chicken, the children were instructed not to share and to leave any remainders in the original container. After eating, the children were told to ask their counselors for instructions before leaving the eating area. The counselors, who were blind to the purpose and treatment of the study, rated the apparent aggression of each child after telling them that they had to wait a few minutes before being able to go play. In addition to the aggression ratings by the counselors, two on-site coders and six videotape coders scored participants on aggression, compliance and atypical behavior.

Results from the coders paralleled the ratings from counselors, supporting their findings that children who were given on-the-bone chicken tended to be less compliant and act more aggressively than their peers in the off-the-bone condition. The behavior of children eating from the drumsticks was also described as more atypical than that of the children given cut-up chicken. These findings support our hypothesis that children who needed to bite their food with their front teeth would exhibit more aggressive and noncompliant behavior than those given deboned chicken.

Although limited by its sample size, the key takeaway could be indicative of a powerful relationship between eating habits and behavior that may be relevant to developmental psychologists, educators, and parents.