Birthday celebrations often follow a formula, including
off-key singing, making a birthday wish while blowing out candles, and the
ceremonial cutting of the birthday cake. New research suggests that this ritual
not only makes the experience more memorable, but might also improve the taste of
The new collection of studies, published in Psychological
Science, a journal of the Association for 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.
Psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs of the Carlson School
of Management at the University of Minnesota wondered about the power of
rituals after noticing the funny routines that people – including Vohs herself – often perform before eating and drinking:
"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," Vohs observes. "It's never enough sugar, so I then pour about
half of the packet in. The thing is, this isn't a functional ritual, I should
just skip right to pouring in half the packet."
Vohs and colleagues conducted four experiments to
investigate how these kinds of ritualistic behaviours might influence our
perception and consumption of various foods.
In the first experiment, some participants were asked 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 simply instructed to relax for a
short amount of time and then eat the chocolate bar in whatever fashion they
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 the chocolate than the other group. The findings
suggest that 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
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
In the final two studies, Vohs and colleagues showed that
personal involvement in the ritual is paramount – watching someone else
methodically mix lemonade doesn't make it taste any better. Additionally, they
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 our eating experiences.
While these rituals may seem small or mundane, the
researchers note that the effects they produce are quite tangible. And while
rituals are common before mealtimes, they could play a role in other
"We are thinking of getting patients to perform rituals
before a surgery and then measuring their pain post-operatively and how fast
they heal," Vohs says.