Many a person in the financial services sector has carved out a successful career for themselves by wielding a knife and fork. To the consternation of the corporate bean counters who watch with dismay the escalating costs of entertainment, they cheerfully claim that the sacrifice they may make to their physical well-being and waistlines is all in the name of improving relationships and buttering up their prospective clients. (Incidentally, the phrase “to butter up” owes its origin to the ancient Indian custom of throwing balls of clarified butter at the statues of gods to ask them a favour). This practice isn’t just restricted to the corporate world. Many of us find that if we have to break some bad news to our nearest and dearest or want a little loan to tide yourself over, it is best to do it whilst sitting fact to face in a restaurant.
Whilst I have always been a bit sceptical about the effectiveness of this approach, there may be something in it, if some research that featured in a recent edition of the ever popular journal, Frontiers in Psychology. The key to the success of this strategy, according to some research conducted by some psychologists from the Dutch university of Leiden, is an amino acid snappily called tryptophan. This compound increases our propensity to donate money.
The researchers divided 32 human guinea pigs into two groups of sixteen, giving one group orange juice with added tryptophan and the other group a placebo. Each participant was given €10 as a reward for their willingness to participate in the study – seems a bit mean, if you ask me – and collection boxes for four charities – Unicef, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and WWF, since you ask – were left ostentatiously on the table and the idea was to see whether any of the participants would donate some of their hard-earned cash to one or more of the worthy causes. The result was that on average those who had ingested the tryptophan gave twice as much as those who had just had the placebo, although, frankly, €1 compared with €0.47 seems a bit miserly, if you ask me.
It seems that tryptophan stimulates the production of serotonin which induces a feel-good factor in us. According to the psychologist, Laura Steenberg, the findings support the theory that the food we eat acts as a social enhancer which in turn alters the way that we interact with the social world.
Before you embark on a strategy of stuffing food down the necks of your clients and prospects and running amok with the corporate plastic, a word of warning. Only certain foods contain tryptophan although it is particularly plentiful in red meat, fish, poultry – that’s the main course sorted out – chocolate, eggs, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese and then, to please the vegetarians amongst us, the likes of sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pump-kin seeds and bananas. So to maximise the effect of your tryptophan charm offensive you will need to take control of the menu and ensure that your guest strays from the straight and narrow. Whilst I have experienced this sort of behaviour in relation to wine lists – either the guest ensuring they get to choose an expensive vino or the host ensuring that only the house plonk is quaffed – but I think I would be offended if my host told me what I was to eat. Perhaps we will see the psychology of food as a subject for aspiring executives to master.
Isn’t science wonderful?!