Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Can sweets make you sweeter?

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This week, kids around the nation are scarfing down bucket loads of Halloween candy, and the rest of us are likely sneaking in some extra treats for ourselves as well. So how is all this sugar consumption affecting us? On the one hand, it may be poisoning us, but on the bright side, new research suggests that eating sweets can actually make you not only seem more sweet, but also lead you to behave in more caring ways.

My first post on this blog discussed research on literal metaphors - concrete, physical representations of more abstract concepts that, when primed, can alter social perception and behavior. For example, the sensation of sitting on a hard chair makes people negotiate more rigidly, and the sensation of warmth makes them more trusting. One interesting new hypothesis is that sweet taste is related to "sweet" personalities and behaviors. A team of researchers led by Brian Meier tested this hypothesis in five studies, soon to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The key findings:

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Study 1: When asked to judge the personalities of a series of strangers' faces who indicated liking sweet (e.g., chocolate cake), bitter (e.g., radishes), sour (e.g., sauerkraut), spicy (e.g., jalapenos) or salty (e.g., Saltine crackers) foods, participants rated the sweet-toothed strangers as significantly more "agreeable" (e.g., friendly, cooperative, compassionate).  Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, spicy food lovers were perceived as more extroverted.

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Study 2: Participants who rated themselves as highly agreeable also indicated preferring sweet foods. Liking other types of tastes was not related to agreeableness, and liking sweets was not related to other personality types (extroversion, neuroticism). This suggests that there might be a "kernel of truth" to the personality inferences from Study 1.

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Study 3: Are dessert-lovers really more kind-hearted, or do they just claim to be? In this study they were more likely to volunteer to help with flood clean-up and to complete a voluntary survey for a professor (and walk up four flights of stairs to deliver it), suggesting the former.

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Study 4: Participants who were randomly assigned to a Hershey's kiss eating condition, as opposed to Altoids, subsequently rated themselves as more agreeable. This effect was not due to differences in mood between the two conditions.

Study 5: This time, participants were assigned to eat either a Dove Silky Smooth Milk Chocolate (4.4 grams of sugar per piece), a sugarless Carr's Table Water Cracker, or nothing. The Dove-eaters were willing to volunteer more time for another study than those in the other two conditions (an average of around 24 minutes, as opposed to around 15), and the effect was again not due to mood differences. Evidently, regardless of how much you prefer sweets in general, eating them may indeed make you sweeter.

Why exactly are sweets associated with sweetness? The authors argue that just as a food's sweetness (as opposed to bitterness) suggests that it is safe to eat, a person's "sweet" personality signals that it is safe to affiliate with them, making sweetness a logical grounding for the more abstract concept of dispositional kindness. Sweet tastes are also known to activate the "approach" motivation system, orienting people towards others. When it comes to Study 5's results, I also wonder if receiving sweets may have made participants feel grateful and indebted, and therefore more inclined to "give back" (even though they are not giving to the experimenter per se).

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Another reason for the link may lie in childhood experiences associated with sweets. What do Halloween, birthday parties, and dessert all have in common, aside from copious amounts of sugar? Generally, they also involve quality time with friends and family. Reading this article, I was reminded of research suggesting that "comfort foods" are comforting because they remind us of close relationships. Perhaps sweets also give us that sense of comfort and closeness, making us more warm and friendly towards others. Related to this idea, might those with a sweet tooth have a stronger need for security and affiliation than those who are content to snack on sauerkraut? According to a study of sweet vs. dry wine preferences, they might also be more impulsive and less open to diverse experiences, suggesting that sweetness might have its downsides too.

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Given the growing tide of anti-sugar research and advocacy (sugar consumption has been implicated in diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and many other chronic health conditions), perhaps our associations with sweetness will change over time -- those who love it will seem reckless, not kind, and eating more than a taste of it will make us feel guilty, not giving. Or maybe sweetness will become all the more coveted, embodying nostalgia for a time when we could joyously gorge ourselves on Halloween candy without giving a thought to fructose metabolism.

The article:

Meier BP, Moeller SK, Riemer-Peltz M, & Robinson MD (2011). Sweet taste preferences and experiences predict prosocial inferences, personalities, and behaviors. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 21875232

8 comments:

  1. Maybe this is the actual origin of the tradition of a man bringing his girlfriend a box of candy when going on a date; an attempt to set the mood, or to encourage sweetness in their relationship. Perhaps symbolism, or is it physiology?

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  2. That's a great connection. And yes, I imagine that both processes (symbolism and physiology) might play a role, though the paper focused more on the symbolic side of things.

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  3. I completely agree about the nostalgic "comfort food" effect of certain foods that we associate with happy times in our lives.

    But,

    What about candy's effects on serotonin production?

    Daniel

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  4. Good question - it does seem like physiological mechanisms are plausible alternative explanations for at least some of these findings. In their defense, the researchers do control for mood, which might have driven the effects if serotonin were a factor. Also, the control condition foods in studies 4 and 5 (Altoids and crackers) could also potentially increase serotonin, though I don't know enough about that topic to have a sense of their effects relative to chocolate.

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