The Psychology of Pumpkin Spice Lattes

Scarcity creates cravings and sparks trends.

Posted Oct 02, 2015

Walk into any grocery store or coffee shop at this time of year and you’re likely to encounter a display of all things pumpkin: beer, coffee, Oreos, M&Ms, chewing gum, and—of course—the pumpkin spice latte. In recent years, these goodies have become synonymous with autumn, as well as a cash cow for Starbucks.

While you might truly enjoy the combination of flavors that add up to “pumpkin spice” (which, for the record, are cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg but not pumpkin itself, which really doesn’t have much flavor), there are deeper, psychological reasons underlying your craving.

First off, there are all of the positive associations that are evoked by pumpkin spiced things: cool, crisp breezes; piles of crunchy, colored leaves; crackling fires; the upcoming winter holidays; the feeling of cozy togetherness. These automatic, emotion-based connections are powerful. Think about it. You would be hard-pressed to find a person who associates pumpkin spice with stress or negativity. So, we have these knee-jerk reactions where, through successful marketing, pumpkin spice comes to equal warm, snuggly autumnal goodness. Or, as some say, “It just tastes like fall.”

There is another powerful principle at play: scarcity. In his classic book Influence, Robert Cialdini discusses the role of scarcity in marketing. Simply put, when things are hard to get, or unattainable, they become much more desirable. Starbucks and other purveyors of pumpkin spice take full advantage of this principle, only allowing us access to these things at certain times of the year. This way, we look forward to them, crave them, talk about them, and even count down until that fine September day when the lattes are released to the world again. If we could have them all year, chances are, we wouldn’t want them quite so much.

While this is a highly effective marketing tool, it can also be used strategically by all of us in our daily lives. In a recent paper, Quoidbach and Dunn (2013) instructed participants to deprive themselves of a food they really enjoy for a week. When they were allowed to have it again, they reported enjoying it significantly more than those who were allowed free access to it during that week. This has been described as a technique for enhancing savoring of everyday life. We simply get used to ordinary pleasantries: chocolate, wine, pedicures (my own personal example), but if we selectively deprive ourselves of them, when we do get them, we are likely to enjoy them all the more.

Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from pumpkin spice lattes.

Reference

Quoidbach, J., & Dunn, E. W. (2013). Give it up: A strategy for combatting hedonic adaptation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(5), 563-568.