Why do we see so many food pictures on social media platforms? If food pictures, or ‘food porn’ as it is called on social media, were already exploding on Instagram, Facebook and even TikTok, the coronavirus pandemic has clearly seen it increase manifold.
With life going online, and us being restricted to four walls in reality, it was only a matter of time before food became our lockdown passion. It’s one of the few things we still have some control over.
First, we urban Indians now spend most of our time at home, in close proximity to our kitchens, our refrigerators and food storage/pantry areas. In short, cooking opportunities galore. Second, dining out especially with friends is not really an option and barring a few exceptions, the alacrity with which we use Zomato and Swiggy has diminished.
It is therefore not surprising that there is increased culinary activity at home. Quite possibly some of it is also a cathartic stress-buster – food, after all, is a basic need and our relationship with it quite primordial. Remember Sania Mirza tweeting about not posting food pictures and Dia Mirza responding that different people cope differently with stress. So more cooking, yes – but to reiterate, why all these carefully staged pictures of food on social media? Especially, Bollywood celebrities, role-models for the majority of Indian, have taken to Twitter to show off their culinary skills.
The great American humorist and chronicler of suburban life, Erma Bombeck said, “Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.” Perhaps that is the answer – the pandemic has driven home the ethereal nature of our existence and we feel a sense of urgency to accomplish things. We post food pictures because it is one of the few things we can do from the confines of our home.
But then why are these pictures curated so carefully? Possibly because we live in the age of social media where life always has to be a perfect 10! However, there is more to this than meets the eye. Today, technology enables us to interact with a much larger group of people than ever before. Some of these people know us well and do not need to be and cannot be impressed. But there is a large group of people out there who are mere acquaintances and are worth impressing.
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It is at this point that lockdown culinary adventures become a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. If others are not posting pictures of their creations, I can impress them by posting my pictures. If the others are posting pictures, then I have no choice but to post pictures of my own scrumptious dishes – otherwise, I fall behind. In fact, posting pictures is the dominant strategy – your best strategy no matter what the others do. As a result, we all end up with an overdose of appetising fare on our social media feeds.
Prisoner’s Dilemma is ubiquitous. I want everyone else to recycle, but I prefer not to recycle because it requires costly effort. Unfortunately, everyone thinks like me and we all end up not recycling. The same is true about the environment and climate change leading to a dirty, polluted world. Alternatively, I want everyone else to wear a mask, but I feel uncomfortable while doing so. But the others reason the same and we see a lot of people walking around without a mask on.
Guess who’s making dinner?
The stereotype associated with men, whether it be in India or elsewhere, is that they rarely cook and if they do – it is meat dishes or grilled food like kebabs. In recent years, there has been a deviation from this trend, at least in India, as men are increasingly participating both in cooking and posting pictures. In fact, recall Master Chef India Season 6 was won by Abinas Nayak who has a huge following on Instagram. Anecdotal stories suggest that the pandemic has boosted this trend. What lies behind this? It is quite unlikely that men suddenly became good cooks and are flaunting this by posting pictures of delicious-looking food on social media.
A possible explanation may lie in the significant gender-differences in behaviours. Economists Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund have studied gender differences in competitiveness and overconfidence. They find men to be significantly more competitive than women. So when a man sees his friend or colleague posting a picture of food on social media, it is quite likely that his own desire to compete by posting pictures is much higher than that of women.
Moreover, men are more competitive because they are overconfident. So, quite possibly, men perceive the pictures of their own dishes to be more tempting than those of others leading them to post even more pictures. Of course, there is the possibility that men are trying to impress others by documenting that they are helping out in the house. In this study, Prof. Ashwini Deshpande of Ashoka University finds evidence supporting that Indian men spent more time in household chores post-lockdown using data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey.
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Enjoy it while it lasts
The real question is what can we expect once the pandemic is over? We predict that as we return to our old ways of life, food pictures will decline, though given its primordial nature many will stick to this newfound hobby! So, seize the day and enjoy it while it lasts.
Chandan K. Jha teaches finance and economics at Le Moyne College. Sudipta Sarangi teaches economics at Virginia Tech. Views are personal.
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