Personality On Your Plate
What you're probably eating at Thanksgiving, according to personality research.
Posted Nov 22, 2019
Americans are gearing up for our favorite food-centered holiday next week: Thanksgiving Day! If you’re like me, you’re probably already dreaming of your favorite Thanksgiving foods (for me, it’s macaroni and cheese and squash casserole). Taste preferences can be pretty individual, but research also shows that certain personality traits are associated with a variety of food preferences and eating habits. Let’s take a lighthearted look at which dishes at the Thanksgiving table you’re more likely to eat based on your personality traits and other characteristics!
“Now it is well known throughout the Midwest that the old man is a turkey junkie. A bona fide garley turkicanus freak. A few days before Christmas his eyes would begin to gleam with a wild and ravenous light.” —A Christmas Story (1983)
Turkey is the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving dinners, and according to people like my husband, the only acceptable holiday meat (this has been a point of contention, as I come from a ham family). Who among us is most likely to hover impatiently over the bird, waiting until they get the green light to dig in?
As it turns out, my husband isn’t alone in his affinity for turkey. A variety of studies have shown that men are more likely to eat meat than women, and that many men view eating meat as integral to their sense of masculinity. In addition, there is evidence that people who are lower in agreeableness, a personality trait that marks one’s tendency to be trusting, kind, cooperative, sympathetic, humble, and generous, eat more meat than people who score highly in agreeableness. In other words, nicer people tend to eat less meat.
One reason for the connection between agreeableness and fewer inclinations to be carnivorous might have to do with experiencing more empathy for the animals we are consuming. One study found a link between a specific aspect of agreeableness—tender-mindedness, or sympathy—and avoidance of meat fats. Another study identified different justifications and strategies for eating meat, and found gender differences in how men and women approach meat. Men use more direct and confrontational justifications for eating meat (e.g., denial of animal suffering, beliefs that animals are lower than humans, beliefs that they have a divine right to eat meat), while women use more avoidant and dissociative strategies (e.g., actively try not to think about the animal on the plate as having once lived and how it might have been treated). The authors found that some of the gender differences were explained by how much participants bought into masculine gender norms, which discourage men from feeling and expressing sympathy.
Ah, the legendary tofurky. This tofu-based turkey roast look-alike might show up at your family’s gathering, although there’s some doubt as to whether anyone really likes it. Whether it’s out of obligation or on purpose, your nice female relatives might be more likely to put it on their plate. Women report eating meatless meals more frequently than men, even if they are not vegetarians. Individuals who have high levels of agreeableness are more likely to try to avoid meat fats and report low meat consumption.
Another consistent correlate of lower meat consumption is openness to experience, which entails enjoying trying new things, having a variety of interests, and being curious, adventurous, intellectual, and imaginative. One recent study that measured the personality traits of vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, and non-vegetarians found significant differences for openness to experience and a personality trait called neuroticism, which describes people who are anxious, moody, and self-conscious. Vegetarians and semi-vegetarians had higher levels of openness to experience than non-vegetarians, but had higher overall levels of neuroticism.
While if you do have a vegetarian or vegan relative, it might be a bad idea to surprise them with a Tofurky, but some extra tasty veggie dishes or another meat substitute might be appreciated, and there are some meat substitutes out there that even your resident carnivore will enjoy!
Casseroles Upon Casseroles
I love all the food at Thanksgiving, but the things I look forward to the most are the rich holiday vegetable casseroles. I’m from Alabama, which means I was trained from an early age to put an ungodly amount of butter and cheese in my holiday side dishes. Ultimately, they’re not very healthy, but they do technically contain vegetables.
Similar to the patterns we see with fruits, agreeableness and openness are related to a tendency to eat more vegetables. Specifically, people who are higher in openness to experience tend to eat more high-fiber foods, which means they might be reaching for the green bean and sweet potato casseroles.
People who are conscientious, or are in other words persistent, hard-working, self-controlled, responsible, and organized, tend to show healthier eating patterns, in addition to having better health-related behaviors in general. For example, they are more likely to avoid fats in general and substitute healthier alternatives for higher-fat items. The highly conscientious person in your life probably usually skips these kinds of dishes, but maybe they’ll make an exception for your grandmother’s famous casserole.
In my family, the closest thing we have to fruit on the Thanksgiving table is cranberry sauce. That counts, right? Studies consistently show that two personality traits predict a higher tendency to eat fruit—agreeableness, and openness to experience. Of course, if you’ve got someone who thinks they hate the stuff? It may not be the case that your cranberry sauce hater is unadventurous or unadaptable; maybe they just haven’t experienced the joys of homemade whole berry cranberry sauce.
Aside from turkey, pumpkin pie might be the most iconic Thanksgiving dish, and there’s nothing worse than biting into what you think is a slice of pumpkin pie, only to realize it is sweet potato, am I right?
Your most conscientious relatives might not proudly partake of your pumpkin (or pecan) pie. Conscientious individuals tend to show more restrained eating practices, which helps them avoid sweets that might compromise their health goals. However, if your relatives are high in neuroticism, they are probably more likely to eat unhealthily in general and have a tendency to eat more calorie-dense sweets. Finally, you might find your more extraverted relatives gabbing over a slice; sociability is correlated with eating more due to external social cues.
That Experimental Dish Your Cousin Brings
At Thanksgiving, tradition is king. It is a time where we look forward to those familiar foods we’ve loved for years, and sometimes adding something new to the mix will be met with an extra serving of side-eye from your mother-in-law. Yet, if you have at least one relative who is high in openness to experience, go ahead and bring that new dish—chances are you’ll have at least one taker. Studies have shown that people who are higher in openness to experience have less food neophobia, or unwillingness to try new foods. Researchers have also found that several aspects of sensation-seeking—thrill and adventure-seeking, or the desire for action and danger; experience-seeking, or the desire for new experiences; and disinhibition—are associated with less refusal to try foods. Finally, people who have high levels of neuroticism tend to be picky eaters and have more neophobia.
Just like the holiday, most of the data reviewed here are American, so these patterns may look different in other cultures and food traditions. And whatever your personality may be, I hope you spend your holiday enjoying a delicious spread with the biological or chosen family who understand you best. Wishing all y'all a Happy Thanksgiving!