Study: Sweets Can Help You Find a Sweetheart

Research comes to surprising conclusions about a mind-body connection.

Posted Nov 03, 2014

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When we talk about love, we often describe it as “sweet.” “Honey," "sugar," and "sweetheart" are common affectionate nicknames. This metaphor between love and sweetness is quite prevalent.1 Could it extend to the actual physical sensation of taste? New research suggests that sweet tastes actually can make us more open to new romance.

Metaphors can take on significance beyond just words. They can become well-learned associations in our minds. Just as you come to associate Dalmatian dogs with fire stations due to consistently seeing and hearing about them together, you may come to associate other concepts linked in common metaphors, such as sweet taste and love.

New research on embodied cognition suggests that these linguistic concepts also become associated with physical experiences: For example, we often talk about the “weight” or “burden” of keeping secrets. Consistent with this idea, two studies found that when people thought about a big secret they were keeping, distances seemed farther away (distances typically seem farther away when we are carrying something heavy).2 In another study, participants who held a hot beverage rated another person as more interpersonally “warm” than participants who were asked to hold a cold beverage.3 And, in three separate studies, participants who thought about loving feelings rated a variety of flavors, such as bitter-sweet chocolate, as sweeter tasting than those primed to experience happiness, jealousy, or neutral emotions.1

These common metaphors may have a basis in more than just language. For example, brain areas involved in the sensation of physical warmth are also involved in psychological feelings of empathy and trust.4 The same brain areas are involved in the experience of both physical and emotional pain, lending credence to metaphors about pain and social rejection, describing the “hurt” we feel when someone betrays us.5 The same is true of love and sweet tastes, which also activate common brain areas.6,7

In a series of studies, Dongning Ren and colleagues investigated the effects of the subtle cue of a sweet taste on thoughts and feelings about romance, particularly in a context where there wasn’t much other information on which to base such an evaluation.8 According to the researchers, sweet taste is unlikely to affect our evaluations of our own established relationships because we already have so much more (and better) information on which to base our opinions about our relationships. But when evaluating a hypothetical relationship or a potential partner we’ve never met, sweet taste could tip the scales in favor of romance.

In two studies, undergraduate students who were either single or involved in a romantic relationship consumed a snack provided by the researchers. In the first study, participants ate sweet cookies or salt and vinegar potato chips, and in the second study they drank a sugary fruit-flavored beverage or water. The participants were led to believe the study was about their impressions of the taste, and were asked to consume the snack slowly throughout the entire study to get the clearest impression possible. This slow consumption was actually designed to prolong the taste sensation as they completed questionnaires about their relationship and mood. Those who were currently involved in relationships were asked to rate their current relationship satisfaction, intimacy, trust, etc., and those who were single were asked to answer those questions with regard to a hypothetical relationship they could have.

The results showed that those experiencing sweet tastes evaluated a hypothetical relationship more positively than those experiencing non-sweet tastes, but taste did not affect evaluations of participants’ current actual relationships. It is possible that these perceptions were due to those who consumed sweets being in a better mood, but further analyses showed no effect of taste on mood, and taste effects on relationship perceptions remained over and above any mood effects.

In a third study, the researchers investigated how sweet taste affects our evaluations of potential romantic partners. In this study, participants drank either a sweet soda mixture or water, as they evaluated a profile of a supposedly single member of the opposite sex. Participants viewed either a written profile paired with a moderately attractive photograph or only a written profile. They were asked how interested they would be in this person if they were at a dating event and how good they expected their relationship with that person to be. They were also asked to evaluate their own general interest in beginning a romantic relationship.

Results showed that those experiencing a sweet taste expressed greater general interest in starting a romance than those drinking water. Similarly, when compared to the water-drinkers, those who drank the sweet soda also expressed greater romantic interest in the person whose profile they viewed and felt that they would have a better quality relationship with that person. As in the first two studies, taste effects existed above and beyond mood effects, but this time taste did affect mood. Specifically those who viewed a profile containing a photograph experienced worse mood if they consumed the soda, but not if they consumed the water. This suggests that mood and taste sensation may combine to influence our experience of romance.

These studies show that experiencing a sweet taste can make us see potential romantic partners in a more positive way. The authors suggest that this may be one reason why we often set out sweet foods in situations where we hope to create pleasant social meetings, such as reception desks and parties. So, if you want to win over a blind date, you may want to consider a trip to the ice-cream parlor.

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.

References

1  Chan, K. Q., Tong, M. W. E., Tan, D. H., & Koh, A. H. Q. (2013). What do love and jealousy taste like? Emotion, 13, 1142–1149. doi:10.1037/a0033758

2 Slepian, M. L., Masicampo, E. J., Toosi, N. R., & Ambady, N. (2012). The physical burdens of secrecy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 619-624. doi:10.1037/a0027598

3 Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322, 606-607. doi:10.1126/science.1162548

4 Balter, M. (2007).Brain evolution studies go micro. Science, 315, 1208-1211. doi: 10.1126/science.315.5816.1208

5 Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 10, 290-292. doi: 10.1126/science.1089134

6 Bartels, A., & Zeki, S. (2000). The neural basis of love. Neuron, 31, 681–697.

7 De Araujo, I. E. T., Kringelbach, M. L., Rolls, E. T., & Hobden, P. (2003). Representation of umami taste in the human brain. Journal of Neurophysiology, 90, 313–319. doi: 10.1152/jn.00669.2002

8 Ren, D., Tan, K., Arriaga, X. B., & Chan, K. Q. (2014). Sweet love: The effects of sweet taste experience on romantic perceptions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1177/0265407514554512. Published online before print at http://spr.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/10/20/0265407514554512

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