Nadia Arumugam writes on Forbes, in July 2013 on the power of food rituals — packaging, eating, thinking, visualizing — how it all affects your experience of the food. Read the whole article here: How You Unwrap Candy Can Make It Taste Better: The Power Of Food Rituals – Forbes.
… all of the above foods would not taste nearly as good if I were to relinquish my strange habits. Or, if I was to simply ask the McDonald’s server to prepare me a sandwich sans tartar sauce (who would be happy to oblige!). Indeed, a recently published series of studies in the journal Psychological Science, have proven me right.
Rituals or formulas such as those that precede the eating of birthday cake such as out-of-tune singing, making the all-important birthday wish, blowing out candles and of course the cutting of the cake, are more than cultural customs designed to make such occasions memorable. Rather, these acts actually improve the taste experience. Not in a tangible, chemical sense, of course, we simply perceive the cake to taste better.
And it’s not just the ceremony that comes before special occasions that are invested with such magical powers. Seemingly insignificant rituals are just as capable of changing our perceptions of what we’re about to consume.
The idea for the research topic came about when Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, pondered over the power of rituals after noticing the intriguing routines that people – including herself, perform even around everyday eating and drinking.
“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 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.”
To investigate the impact of these behaviors on our perception of taste, Vohs and her team of researchers carried out four experiments.
In the first one, some participants were asked to eat a piece of chocolate abiding by a detailed set of 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. Another group of participants were told to relax for a short period and then simply to eat the chocolate bar however they wished.
The results revealed that those who had undertook the “ritual” not only rated the chocolate more highly, enjoyed it more, but that they were also willing to pay more for the chocolate than the other group. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the findings is that they suggest that even a recently-learned, fabricated ritual can produce real effects. No doubt, marketeers will be heartened. Perhaps we will see advertising campaigns or food packaging featuring instructions for entirely invented pre-consumption rituals?
A second experiment reinforced the importance of the “formula” demonstrating that random, sporadic and unsystematic acts don’t produce a more enjoyable eating experience. On the contrary, only repeated and fixed behaviors appear to alter our perception of the food.
While brief rituals were shown to be impactful, the results of the research revealed that the longer the delay between ritual and consumption the greater the effects. Even with a non-fun food like carrots; the sustained anticipation of eating carrots following contrived, non-functional behavior actually improved their taste. Parents – take note!
In the remaining two studies, the researchers found that people have to perform the ritual themselves to benefit from its perception-altering power. Watching someone else methodically mix lemonade doesn’t make it taste any better for the second-hand observer.
So what is it about rituals that cause them to be imbued with such influence? Voh and her colleagues found that intrinsic interest, the phenomenon that describes how rituals draw people into what they are doing by making them focus on performing well — fully accounted for the positive effects that they have on our eating experiences.
In case you were wondering what good can come out of knowing that the way you split your Oreo cookie is paramount to the satisfaction you from ingesting it, here comes the part about why should care. While the studies in this piece of research revolved around food rituals, they can play a role in other situations too.
“We are thinking of getting patients to perform rituals before a surgery and then measuring their pain post-operatively and how fast they heal,” Vohs says.