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Going out to lunch zaps mental focus

Sharing a midday meal with friends could lead later to errors at work

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Lunch at a restaurant with a friend could lessen the brain’s aptitude for detailed tasks back at work, a new study suggests. If an error-free afternoon is the goal, perhaps workers should consider hastily consuming calories alone at their desks.

But bosses shouldn’t rush to glue workers to their chairs just yet. The research is only a first stab at teasing out how a sociable lunch affects work performance, says study leader Werner Sommer of Humboldt University in Berlin.

Researchers have long thought that dining with others fosters mental well-being, cooperation and creativity. To test the effects of a midday social hour on the brain’s capacity to get through the workday, Sommer and his colleagues gave 32 women lunch in one of two settings and then tested their mental focus. Half of the women enjoyed meals over a leisurely hour with a friend at a casual Italian restaurant. The other group picked up their meals from the same restaurant, but had only 20 minutes to eat alone in a drab office. People who went out to lunch got to choose from a limited vegetarian menu; participants in the office group had meals that matched the choice of a member of the other group.

After lunch, the group that dined in bland solitude performed better on a task that assesses rapid decision making and focus, the researchers report July 30 in PLOS ONE. Measurements of brain activity also suggested that the brain’s error-monitoring system could be running at sub-par levels in those who ate out.

Sommer acknowledges that several factors besides the meal context could have affected the results. For instance, the people who ate in the office had no choice of food and did not get to socialize, read or surf the web.

And the news is not all bad for diners out, Sommer says. Being less rigidly focused could come in handy when navigating sticky social situations or solving problems creatively. Sommer’s lab is testing the effects of social meals on workers’ creativity and generosity.

“Being a little less focused could be good or bad, depending on the situation,” says psychologist Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania. “If you’re running the control tower at the airport you wouldn’t want this. But if you’re trying to think of a new idea, you might.”

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