Food consumption and flavour influenced by pre-meal rituals, Study

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 31st July 2013

Ritualistic behaviours can influence perception of flavour and consumption of foods, according to research from the University of Minnesota.

The new collection of studies, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, on 23 July 2013, found that the rituals performed before eating – even the seemingly insignificant ones – can actually change the perception of the food eaten, improving the food’s taste.

“Whenever I order an espresso, I take a sugar packet and shake it, open the packet and pour a teeny bit of sugar in, and then taste,” said Marketing Professor Kathleen Vohs of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “It’s never enough sugar, so then I pour about half the packet in. The thing is, this isn’t a functional ritual – I should just skip right to pouring in half the packet,” she said.

Professor Vohs said she wondered about the power of such rituals, so she and colleagues conducted four experiments to investigate how these kind of ritualistic behaviours might influence the perception and consumption of various foods.

Study method

In the first experiment, the researchers asked some participants to eat a piece of chocolate following a detailed set of instructions: “Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it.”

The other participants were instructed simply to relax for a short period of time and then eat the chocolate bar in whatever way they wished.

The results of the experiment showed that the participants who had performed the ‘ritual’ rated the chocolate more highly, savoured it more, and were willing to pay more for the chocolate than the other group. The researchers said the findings suggest that even a short, fabricated ritual “can produce real effects”.

A second experiment reinforced these findings, showing that random movements do not product a more enjoyable eating experience. According to the researchers, only repeated, episodic, and fixed behaviours seemed to change the participants’ perception of food.

Timing matters

According to the researchers, the data from the studies also revealed that a longer delay between ritual and consumption bolstered the effects of the ritual, even with a neutral food like carrots. The anticipation of eating carrots following a ritual actually improved their subjective taste, the researchers said.

Personal involvement in ritual important

In the final two studies, Professor Vohs and her colleagues showed that personal involvement in the ritual was “paramount”, and that watching someone else perform the ritual did not make it taste better.

The researchers found that “intrinsic interest” – the fact that rituals draw people into what they are doing – fully accounted for the positive effects that rituals have on eating experiences.

According to the researchers, the findings may have an application in situations other than mealtimes too.

“We are thinking of getting patients to perform rituals before a surgery and then measuring their pain post-operatively, and how fast they heal,” Professor Vohs said.

Co-authors in the research included Yanjin Wang of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Francesca Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School.

Uni of Minnesota finds ritual affects food taste