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Rituals 'make food taste better'

Scientists find that to savour the flavour, perform a short ritual first
By
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard
eating chocolate

23rd July 2013 - Birthday celebrations often follow a formula, including off-key singing, making a birthday wish while blowing out candles and the ceremonial cutting of the cake. New US research suggests that this ritual not only makes the experience more memorable but might also improve the taste of the cake.

The new collection of studies, published in Psychological Science, reveals that the rituals we perform before eating - even the seemingly insignificant ones - can actually change our perception of the food we eat.

Experiments

Psychological scientist, Kathleen Vohs, from the University of Minnesota wondered about the power of rituals. Along with some colleagues she conducted four experiments to investigate how ritualistic behaviours might influence perception and consumption of various foods.

In the first experiment, some participants were asked to eat a piece of chocolate following a ritual, in this case 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 simply instructed to relax for a short amount of time and then eat the chocolate bar in whatever way they wanted.

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

A second experiment reinforced these findings, showing that random movements don’t produce a more enjoyable eating experience. Only repeated, episodic, and fixed behaviours seem to change our perception of the food.

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

In the final two studies, the researchers showed that personal involvement in the ritual is paramount - watching someone else methodically mix lemonade didn't make it taste any better. They, therefore, suggest the best way to enjoy a glass of wine may be to perform the ceremonial bottle opening yourself rather than give it to someone else to do.

The last experiment involved intrinsic interest and provided direct evidence of the underlying process: rituals enhance consumption enjoyment due to the greater involvement they prompt in the experience.

Other ritual uses

While these rituals may seem small or mundane, the researchers note the effects they produce are quite tangible and think ritual may have a role to play in other situations too, such as healthy eating or taking exercise.

Kathleen Vohs says in a press release: "We are thinking of getting patients to perform rituals before a surgery and then measuring their pain post-operatively and how fast they heal."

Reviewed on July 23, 2013

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