You spend a little extra time stirring the lemonade, listening to the spoon clinking against the glass. You break the chocolate bar into neat sections before popping that first little rectangle into your mouth. You sing the happy birthday song and make a wish before blowing out the candles on the cake. All these things can make those foods taste better, according to a collection of studies published in Psychological Science.
The research indicates that rituals, even silly ones, have the power to change our perception of how food tastes. Kathleen Vohs, psychological scientist at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota observed that many people create little routines before eating or drinking, so she set out to find out what effect they had on taste perception.
“Whenever I order an espresso, I take a sugar packet and shake it, open the packet and pour a teeny bit of sugar in, and then taste,” says Ms. Vohs. “It’s never enough sugar, so I then pour about half of the packet in. The thing is, this isn’t a functional ritual, I should just skip right to pouring in half the packet.”
Along with other researchers, Vohs conducted a series of experiments involving ritualistic behaviors, consumption of various foods, and how people perceive taste. In one experiment, volunteers were asked to eat a piece of chocolate according to these instructions: “Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it.” Others were asked to relax for a bit, then eat a chocolate bar however they wanted.
Those who performed the ritual gave the chocolate higher ratings for taste and were willing to pay a higher price for the chocolate than the group who didn’t.
Another experiment showed that random actions don’t do the trick. Rather, repeated, episodic, and fixed behaviors — rituals — are more likely to improve our perception of how food tastes. Researchers also found that a delay between the ritual and eating intensified the effect. Apparently, anticipation improves taste. Watching someone else perform the ritual doesn’t work. It’s the personal involvement that does the trick.
The research team believes this type of ritual may be useful in other situations as well. “We are thinking of getting patients to perform rituals before a surgery and then measuring their pain post-operatively and how fast they heal,” says Vohs.
Psychological Science is a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Co-authors included Yajin Wang of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and Francesca Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School.
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