3 Surprising Things About Coffee

Research reveals the psychology of drinking coffee.

Posted Mar 12, 2017

wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

“Coffee is a language in itself,” Jackie Chan once said. It is doubtful that he had scientific research on his mind, but recent studies bear him out: The brew has been found to have some powerful effects. Research has largely focused on how the drink affects us physically, including its implications for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and overall health. But coffee has psychological influences as well. Following are just three:

1. It makes you focus on the positive.

Caffeine is, of course, known for its jolting abilities, but even a small dose can increase positivity. Prior research has demonstrated that specific memories are strengthened when intensely positive or negative emotions are connected to objects. Caffeine perks up activity in the central nervous system, and normal doses can improve performance on simple behavioral and cognitive tasks. Building on these findings, investigators found that when people consumed 200 milligrams of caffeine (the equivalent of two to three cups of coffee) 30 minutes before performing a verbal task, it actually improved their recognition of words with positive connotations — but not their processing of emotionally neutral or negative words. The investigators maintain that this may be because caffeine stirs up the neurotransmitter dopamine (which is related to the brain's pleasure center) in language-dominant regions of the brain.

2. Hot coffee makes you see others in a more caring light.

Is there a connection between physical and interpersonal warmth? Theory and research suggest that there is. Attachment theory underscores the crucial role of warm physical contact with caregivers in a person's early years and its influence on healthy relationship functioning in adulthood. And research has found that a part of brain called the insula is involved in processing both of these phenomena. Drawing on this research, investigators tested whether experiences of physical warmth versus coldness would heighten feelings of interpersonal warmth versus coldness — and whether it would do so outside of conscious awareness. So they designed an experiment in which participants entered an elevator with a research confederate, who just so happened to be holding both textbooks and a cup of coffee. As she rode the elevator with each participant she asked them to briefly hold her cup of coffee (sometimes, hot, sometimes iced) while she jotted down some information. Shortly after, participants read a description of a stranger and were asked to evaluate their personality. What did the investigators find? Those who briefly held a cup of hot — as opposed to iced — coffee judged the stranger as having a “warmer” personality; that is, to be nicer and more generous. This finding is in keeping with the notion that warmth relates to both physical and emotional experiences.

3. It tastes differently, depending on the color of your mug.

Remarkably, research has found that when it comes to coffee, mug color can influence taste perception. Consider a study in which participants drank a hot café latte from either a white, blue, or transparent (glass) mug. Participants rated the “intensity” of the coffee flavor to be greater when it was drunk from the white mug as opposed to the transparent mug, and to be “less sweet” in the white mug by comparison to the transparent and blue mugs. The investigators maintain that the color contrast between the mug and the coffee may have influenced the perceived intensity and sweetness of the coffee. More specifically, drinking coffee from the white mug may have affected how people perceived the brownness of the coffee and, subsequently, may have influenced the perceived intensity and sweetness of the brew.

Find Vinita Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.

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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

References

Caffeine Improves Left Hemisphere Processing of Positive Words. Kuchinke L, Lux V (2012) PLoS ONE 7(11): e48487. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048487

Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth. Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh. Science. 2008 Oct 24; 322(5901): 606–607. doi:  10.1126/science.1162548

Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee? George H Van Doorn, Dianne Wuillemin and Charles Spence. Flavour 2014, 3:10 DOI: 10.1186/2044-7248-3-10

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