Sadie Leder Elder, Ph.D.

A Lesson Plan for Love

Deconstructing the Pumpkin Spice Latte Craze

PSL-mania may stem from how the drink makes us feel rather than how it tastes

Posted Sep 17, 2017

Denise Mattox/339: Pumpkin Spice Love
Source: Denise Mattox/339: Pumpkin Spice Love

September is here and that means one thing…Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is Back!  Have you ever wondered why this seems to be such a big deal to the general populace?  Sure, the pumpkin spice latte is delicious, but how excited should one get about a beverage?  It may be that some of the PSL-mania stems from how the drink makes us feel rather than how it tastes.

Relationship science could argue that the pumpkin spice lattes speak to consumers on a number of unconscious levels.  In a pretty fascinating set of studies, researchers have shown that people who hold a warm beverage rate others more positively, particularly as warmer in an interpersonal sense, than those who hold a cold beverage.  So perhaps we desire the delectable drink because it makes us feel rosier towards those around us. 

Similarly, psychological research attests to the power that scarcity has to make us want something that isn’t always readily available.  In fact, scarcity is one (and perhaps the only) thing that Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte and the McRib have in common.  Their makers deliberately release them for a limited time to take advantage of people’s natural tendency towards reactance (wanting what we can’t have).  

However, I think some of the allure of the pumpkin spice latte may also be from associations people have created between the caffeinated indulgence and their own personal relationships.  A brilliant article written by a friend and colleague examined why people are so comforted by “comfort foods.”  As it turns out, when people consume these foods they feel a sense of connection that actually bolsters belongingness and can alleviate loneliness.  This work showed that people often associate “comfort foods” to social comforts, like that of a family tradition or a pleasant reminder from the past.  Accordingly, consumers may have built associations to the pumpkin spice latte that remind them of a happier time. 

Whatever your reason, the season of pumpkin spice is upon us, so indulge and enjoy!

References

Pennebaker, J., Dyer, M., Caulkins, R., Litowitz, D., Ackreman, P.L., Anderson, D.B., & McGraw, K.M. (1979). Don't the girls get prettier at closing time: A country and western application to psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5, 122-125.

Troisi, J. D. & Gabriel, S. (2011).  Chicken soup really is good for the soul:  “Comfort food” fulfills the need to belong.  Psychological Science, 22, 747-753.

Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322, 606-607