Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Rituals Make the World Taste Better

How do ritual actions influence your experience of eating?

In the United States, we have a strange relationship with food. Most of us eat on the go. We drive through at fast food restaurants and then stuff our faces as we get where we’re going. We eat at our desks while working. We grab dinner in between other tasks, sometimes standing at a counter in the kitchen.

Food is fuel, of course, so perhaps this approach makes sense. We don’t make an elaborate ceremony of putting gas in the car, so why should mealtime be any different?

Yet, cultures have often created rituals around food. In many countries, mealtime is an oasis from the troubles of the day. Everyone sits down around a well-set table. Dishes are placed in the center. People may say a prayer before eating. And then the meal and the conversation commences. 

What exactly do we get out of creating ceremonies around eating?

An interesting paper by Kathleen Vohs, Yajin Wang, Francesca Gino, and Michael Norton in the September, 2013 issue of Psychological Science examines whether rituals affect the taste of food. 

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In one study, participants ate carrots three times over the course of an experimental session. Carrots are an interesting food choice, because they taste good, but they are not high on most people’s lists of desirable foods (compared, say, to ice cream or chocolate). One group was given a ritual to perform before eating each carrot. They would bang their knuckles on the table, close their eyes, and take a deep breath. A second group was given a different sequence of actions before each carrot. So, they performed an action, but it was not a ritual, because the actions were always different. 

Before eating the last carrot, participants rated how much they thought they would enjoy it, and after eating it, they rated their enjoyment of the carrot. Finally, some participants were able to eat the third carrot immediately after performing the ritual, but others had a delay before eating the carrot. The participants with the delay performed an unrelated study before eating the carrot.

Overall, participants who performed the ritual anticipated enjoying the carrot more than those who performed random actions, and their ratings of actual enjoyment were also higher. The delay actually enhanced the influence of the ritual. When people knew there would be a delay, they believed they would enjoy the carrot more and they actually did enjoy it more.

Another study (this one involving lemonade) found that you have to perform the ritual yourself to get the benefit of it. Participants who watched the experimenter perform the ritual enjoyed the lemonade less than those who performed the ritual themselves. 

One last study (this one involving chocolate) found that participants who performed a ritual were more interested in the food than those who did not perform a ritual. So, the ritual seems to have affected people’s intrinsic interest in the activity of eating.

Rituals are a pervasive cultural invention. Every culture asks people to perform actions that have no obvious value in and of themselves. I have written before about studies demonstrating that rituals can increase people’s sense of closeness to a community. These studies expand this influence to show that rituals can increase people’s sense of closeness to food as well.

If you find that you are not enjoying the food you eat and that you tend to treat your food as fuel, then consider creating some rituals around the way you eat. Set your table. Turn off the TV and the computer. Close your eyes for a moment and prepare to eat. And then…enjoy.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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