By Melinda Wenner Moyer, published on November 5, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Some days you feel impatient, other days generous, and others judgmental. Why? It could have something to do with what you ate for breakfast and even which restaurants you passed on your way to work. New research suggests that the foods you eat—and even the ones you just think about—color your actions and perceptions in unexpected ways.
We all use expressions that connote taste to describe the world around us: She’s a “sweet” person; that was a “disgusting” joke. Eating-related emotions and words help to “scaffold our understanding of abstract concepts,” explains North Dakota State University psychologist Michael Robinson. Food metaphors become “tools that allow us to conceptualize things that would otherwise be hard to conceptualize.” But the way we use gastronomic ideas to describe people isn’t just handy—it’s actually based in truth.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Robinson and his colleagues report that not only do we believe that individuals who like sweets are nicer than people who prefer savory, spicy, sour, and bitter foods, but we are actually correct: Candy and cookie lovers are more willing to help others than those who favor other flavors. Moreover, when Robinson simply gave subjects a piece of sweet candy and asked them if they would volunteer their time to help a stranger, they were more likely to say yes—and actually follow through—than were individuals given sour candy or a salty cracker.
On the other hand, “a bad taste in the mouth can literally induce harsh judgments about strangers,” says Kendall Eskine, a psychologist at Loyola University New Orleans. In a study published in Psychological Science last year, he and his colleagues asked participants to drink a small glass of either fruit punch, Swedish bitters (an herbal supplement), or water. Immediately afterwards, he had them read and judge a handful of short narratives describing moral transgressions of varying seriousness, such as a student stealing library books or a congressman accepting bribes. The subjects who had sipped the bitters judged the vignettes more harshly than those who drank either punch or water.
Why does food have these wide-reaching psychological effects? It doesn’t seem to be based in nutrition: Studies suggest that just tasting a food—without swallowing it—can influence behavior, perhaps because food is so important to us physically and culturally. Not only do we have to eat to survive, but ritualistic celebrations like weddings and religious holidays often revolve around meals.
Moreover, when foods are associated with lifestyle choices, thinking of them—without even necessarily tasting them—can prime us to behave in surprising ways. After seeing pictures of organic food, people in one of Eskine’s studies became harsher moral judges and were less willing to help others than subjects who saw pictures of comfort foods like ice cream or neutral foods like mustard. Because organic food is associated with healthfulness and environmental responsibility, thinking about it may make us feel self-righteous, Eskine says, and lead us to behave judgmentally and selfishly.
In another study, published in 2010, people who briefly saw fast food restaurant logos performed subsequent reading tasks much more quickly than people who did not, even when they weren’t under any time pressure. The logo-exposed subjects were also more shortsighted in their thinking, saying they would rather receive small, immediate monetary awards than wait for larger ones. The findings suggest that “being exposed to fast food symbols is enough to trigger impatience,” says coauthor Chen-Bo Zhong, a psychologist at the University of Toronto. “It highlights the intimate, reciprocal connections between our basic psychological mechanisms and our social environment.”
So are we all slaves to our sugar cookies and Big Macs? “When you work in this area, you become very impressed by the consistency of these effects,” Robinson says. Still, no one knows yet just how much of our behavior is shaped by food. And Eskine’s work suggests that simply by being aware of these effects, we lessen their influence on us. That said, it could be prudent to bring doughnuts into work when you plan to ask for a raise—it might just make your boss feel a little more generous.
Sweet-loving people may be sweet, but flavor preference doesn’t always match disposition. We often assume that people who crave spice in their food crave spice in their life—but research suggests that we’re wrong. A recent paper in the journal Appetite concludes that frequent consumption of spicy food is not correlated to any particular personality traits. While the researchers predicted that lovers of chili pepper would have higher rates of extraversion and thrill-seeking—what we might call a “spicy” personality—their small study did not confirm this hypothesis. When it comes to developing a taste for Sriracha, experience—especially childhood exposure—seems to matter most.