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About That Last Slice of Pie 🥧
The last slice of pie is a humble yet powerful symbol of social norms
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As the holiday season approaches and Thanksgiving tables are set with a variety of delicious treats, a strange social phenomenon may soon unfold at a dinner table near you—no one wants to be seen as the person who takes the last slice of pie. You can already picture the scene, can’t you?
Your uncle is known for his hearty appetite, but he’s refraining from reaching for the final piece of pumpkin pie in the middle of the table. His hesitation doesn’t come from a lack of desire but is instead a conscious decision to adhere to unspoken social norms. The feast is just about over, but there it sits—a single slice, seemingly abandoned.
Everyone else looks around in an awkward dance of polite hesitation. What seems like a simple story of manners contains so much more. Let’s peel back the layers to explore the dance of politeness, the altruism on display, and the collective script we seem to follow when it comes to the last piece of anything.
The Dance of Politeness
Family and friends, who moments earlier were laughing together, now find themselves in a debate over who should get that final piece. That last slice sits on the table, waiting for someone to claim it. We bounce back and forth between guests offering it to someone else instead of taking it for ourselves. It’s a performance we do to be seen as considerate, selfless, and aware of shared social norms.
There are large social costs at play if you don’t follow the script. Imagine grabbing that last slice without at least offering it to others first. The social cost ends up being the perceived judgment or label you might receive for being the one who greedily grabs the last indulgence. Ultimately, the back-and-forth nature is a chance to signal your altruistic nature
Altruism on Display
What does it mean to be altruistic anyway? Altruism is the unselfish concern for the happiness and well-being of others. Offering the last slice to others makes you appear caring and kind to those around the table who may want the last bite. When you stop yourself from just taking that last piece for yourself, you're signaling to others your altruistic nature, prioritizing the happiness of others over your own desires.
This courtesy isn’t just confined to family gatherings; it also extends to places where acquaintances outnumber relatives. People exhibit similar behaviors at the yearly office party or during summer church picnics. We have a desire to make a positive impression on other people, even if they aren’t people we would consider close. Taking the last piece of anything without offering it to others first can still be seen as selfish, and that feeling is magnified when the gatherings are intended to be a shared space.
The experience also transcends international borders. For example, the Germans (of course) have a word for it: “das Anstandsstück.” The final piece of food left waiting to be consumed is sometimes dubbed the "decency piece" or the "politeness piece." Other cultures may leave the last piece specifically for the host or may leave it for religious purposes. Regardless, the behavior emphasizes a broader expectation that people will prioritize the happiness of others over their own desires for one more bite.
A Different Kind of Common Knowledge
Now, let's dig a little deeper into behavioral economics, which combines insights from psychology and economics to understand how individuals deviate from the traditional economic models of purely rational decision-making. Our pie dilemma helps us understand the intricate social dynamics at play when deciding whether or not to take that last slice.
You may really want that last bite of food, but the social cost of just taking it outweighs the personal gain you would receive if you ate it. Perhaps what’s more fascinating about it all is the collective script we all seem to follow when it comes to the last piece of something.
We share common knowledge that the last piece is meant to be offered to someone else. Participants in this social ritual not only know that they are being observed but also know that others are aware of these social norms. Eventually, someone will give up offering it to others and take the last piece, but it’s usually when others insist. Until that point, it becomes a strategic decision to adhere to the collective script that signals to the rest of the group that we value selflessness and mutual respect.
Just Be Thankful
The last slice of pie emerges as a humble yet powerful symbol of social norms. As we approach Thanksgiving and the other upcoming holidays, let’s recognize the significance of this seemingly trivial ritual. The ability for us to see that social costs are embedded in these shared rituals allows us to gain a deeper appreciation for the delicate balance between individual desires and the pursuit of social harmony.
Don’t forget that our common knowledge extends beyond the dessert table. Not only will there inevitably be a final slice of pie, but there will probably be a final bit of casserole or a scoop of stuffing left at the end of the meal. Approach the serving area at the same time as someone else and you’ll enter into yet another dance of politeness, a shared understanding that no one wants to be seen as taking the last bit.
As the last slice awaits its fate on the dessert table, remember that this is a dance we perform to maintain the togetherness that defines our holiday gatherings. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, be thankful that you are surrounded by others who want to be around you and that you have survived one more trip around the sun.
One of the earliest recipes for pumpkin pie comes from a 1653 French cookbook that instructed chefs to boil pumpkin in milk and strain it before putting it in a crust [The History Channel]
A recent poll found that 77% of respondents think Thanksgiving isn’t a good time to get into politics with family [Axios/Ipsos]
With all the pie choices out there, 23% of Americans choose pumpkin as their favorite, followed by pecan pie (14%), apple pie (12%), and sweet potato pie (8%) [YouGov]
In a survey of U.S. adults, 83% say spending time with family provides them a great deal or quite a bit of meaning and fulfillment [Pew Research Center]