Jordan Gaines Lewis, Ph.D.

Brain Babble

The Psychology Behind the Pumpkin Spice Fad

What explains the seasonal M&M's, yogurt, beer, bagels, and more?

Posted Sep 11, 2015

Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock
Source: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

It was a humid, sticky 90 degrees when I made a quick trip to the grocery store in shorts and a tank top a couple of weeks ago. Despite the heat, however, the store clearly wanted me to think fall.

Weaving through the aisles, I was confronted with pumpkin spice M&M's, pumpkin spice yogurt, pumpkin spice Oreos, pumpkin spice cereal, pumpkin spice beer, pumpkin spice cookies, pumpkin spice bagels, pumpkin spice Pop-Tarts, pumpkin spice popcorn, pumpkin spice hummus, pumpkin spice coffee (and pumpkin spice creamer…).

At the risk of sounding any more like Forrest Gump's shrimp-obsessed friend Bubba, I'd just say that we’ve all apparently gone a little mad. With the recent release of everyone’s favorite—the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte—it’s time we ask:

Why are we so obsessed with pumpkin spice...everything?

It’s only around for a limited time

Debuting only after Labor Day—and replaced with gingerbread and mint-chocolaty treats by winter—the anticipation for pumpkin spice’s annual return can be explained by the psychological theory of reactance.

Joel Kramer (Flickr)
Source: Joel Kramer (Flickr)

Reactance theory explains why we become motivated to respond to offers when we feel that our choices and alternatives are limited. The more important the choice is to us, the stronger we’ll react when we know it will soon be gone.

During the first investigation of this theory in 1966, psychologist Jack Brehm studied the effects of product unavailability on its attractiveness to consumers. Participants were asked to listen to and rate four records. Afterward, they were told that they were allowed to keep one. One group of participants was also informed that the record they rated as their third choice was unfortunately unavailable because it had gone missing during shipment. Asked to re-evaluate their ratings after hearing this, 67% of participants ranked the missing record higher than they had previously.

Marketers have known this for years. We’ve all seen commercials for products being offered for a “limited time only!” or felt more motivated to go shopping for new clothes when a “30% off only through Sunday” flyer shows up in the newspaper. We might actually prefer to eat regular Oreos, but knowing that pumpkin spice Oreos are only around for a few weeks makes that choice more appealing to us: “Get it before it’s gone."

Everyone else is doing it

When it comes to the pumpkin spice craze, there’s certainly a bit of social influence at play. Sure, pumpkin spice is tasty, but so are chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, apple cinnamon, and caramel. Yet when your Instagram feed is filled with friends wielding their first Pumpkin Spice Lattes of the season, or when everyone in your 2 p.m. break crowd at work decides to go for one, you’re probably more likely to get one, too.

Social conformity is when we match our attitudes and behaviors to the unspoken “norms” of small groups, or society as a whole. The phenomenon often stems from a desire to feel secure within a group. Imagine approaching a mall food court with five restaurants. Although all are open and willing to serve, you see that everyone is lined up at just one. Based on your perception, which place are you most likely to pick as having the best food?

Of course, you aren’t going to be ostracized by society if you choose peanut M&Ms over pumpkin spice at the store this month. But when it comes to any craze—slap bracelets, Beanie Babies, the Macarena, or pumpkin spice—it makes us happy and secure to feel included with the rest of society.

It makes us feel warm and fuzzy

Dead leaves falling to the ground, early sunsets, and the gray chill of the impending winter don’t always inspire positive feelings for autumn. But when we attach meaning to the season—the start of school, new leather boots, cozy scarves, and family holidays, like Halloween and Thanksgiving—it can become significantly more enjoyable.

icowdog (Flickr)
Source: icowdog (Flickr)

Injecting meaning into something—in this case, a season—stimulates feelings of nostalgia when we look back in the winter, spring, and summer months. Feeling nostalgic toward something has been shown to improve our mood, make us feel more socially connectedcomfort us, and make us more willing to view ourselves in a positive light

Like hot cocoa, fuzzy sweaters, and apple picking, pumpkin spice treats have become synonymous with autumn. Our desire to return to that crisp fall air during a winter blizzard or summer heat wave is accompanied, for many of us, by our nostalgic feelings toward pumpkin spice.

The sugar makes our brains happy

It helps that most pumpkin spice products are supremely sweet. As I’ve previously written, our brains are strongly wired to respond to the taste of sugar and other carbohydrates. (Of course, not all products do justice to pumpkin spice: As John Oliver says, some truly taste like a candle might.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go reward myself for writing this post with a Pumpkin Spice Latte. And I’ll admit that I was first in line at Starbucks on opening day of the season—despite the thermometer reading 95.