Karen Belz
August 31, 2016 4:45 pm
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Refinery29‘s Laurel Miller recently took on a pretty intriguing task — after trying to figure out why people got so batty over stale office pastries and meeting food, she happily took on a piece which tried to outline and identify why we act so crazy over free food. Even if the food is terrible (and oftentimes it is), we love the fact that it’s free. Case in point: The craziness that happens around every Costco free sample booth.

“After a catered meeting is finished and the leftovers are opened up to the rest of the office, it turns into a competition of who can get their hands on the freebies first. Everyone gets nervous that if they’re not standing right there, nothing will be left,” said Miller’s editor, Zoe Bain.

Bain was curious as to why people… well, react that way. What’s so special about leftover deli meats?

In order to get some answers, Miller reached out to a few psychologists and anthropologists — professionals who might know why our minds go berserk when free food is present. First up was Richard Wilk, who is not only an anthropology professor, but a co-director of the Indiana University Food Institute.

“Through two or three million years of human evolution, all food was free. The only differences were in how much time, effort, or danger were involved in getting that food,” Wilk said. “Almost every human culture studied by anthropologists has an elaborate set of rules about how food is divided, which means that people never grab food, but instead set about sharing it.”

Dr. Amy K. McLennan, a research assistant, happened to agree with Wilk’s claims.

“In some instances — if governments are giving away ‘free’ food, to, say, starving populations, then the food might instead be treated with suspicion or disdain,” she said. “But in some societies, sharing food forms a bond between giver and receiver…”

Ever bond over a pizza? Ever feel okay with the fact that the host kept the leftovers? Shocked that there were leftovers to begin with? It’s all kind of related. Both the sharing and storage of food is definitely understood between humans. Likewise, when someone brings in a box of donuts for their birthday, it’s really nice to take one and feel included in the celebration.

Dr. Susan D. Blum, professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, told Miller that the impulse to grab free food is totally based on economics.

“I think it has to do with the way the idea of ‘free’ has been socialized and the notions of capitalism that give value to something that’s otherwise assigned a monetary cost,” she said. “In the U.S., we’ve divorced hunger from consumption and there are many other factors affecting appetite.”

Finally, Miller chatted with Dr. Merry White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University. White had an explanation that was definitely true, which pretty much piggybacks on Wilk’s explanation. Simply put, free food is something we’re aware of throughout childhood. If a mother breastfeeds, that’s technically “free food” — and hey, even as kids, we were luckily enough to know the fridge was stocked. We didn’t necessarily think about where it came from, or how much it had cost.

“Getting ‘food for free’ has a visceral memory,” White noted. “But then there are twisted, sneaky adult feelings that come into play. Food on airplanes? It used to be ‘free’ and now if you get a bag of pretzels. You’re inordinately grateful: free food!”

Yes, there is that feeling that we’re “getting away with something” if we happen to get two bags of Cheetos instead of one at the vending machine. But, the joy we feel when that happens? It’s like no other. So in short, maybe we get batty over free food since it simply reminds us of childhood — when things were just a little bit easier.

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