‘Meat is murder’, or so the vegetarian’s rallying cry goes. But according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, meat also means social power, and, for some, it’s the power that really tastes good.
In this study, conducted by Michael Allen at the University of Sydney, Australia, and colleagues, participants were lied to about the contents of sausage rolls they were tasting.
In some conditions they were told they were tasting real beef sausage rolls when actually they were eating a vegetarian alternative that tasted the same. Then they were told they were eating the vegetarian alternative when actually they were eating the beef.
Meaty sausage rolls are aspirational
Allen and colleagues were inspired to this trickery by research demonstrating that how we experience something we eat is influenced by our beliefs. For example in one study people rated yoghurt and sandwiches labelled ‘full fat’ as tastier than those labelled ‘low fat’. In fact both foods were identical.
The current study differed in that it was interested in how people’s beliefs about social power affected their taste experiences. The researchers asked participants to complete a questionnaire that accessed the extent to which they seek to dominate others socially and acquire resources, wealth and public recognition.
The results showed that those who were low on social power values preferred the taste of the vegetarian sausage roll, regardless of whether they’d actually tasted the beef or the veggie alternative. Those high on social power, however, found the beef more tasty, even when it was just the veggie option labelled as beef.
In a second test of this idea the researchers did a version of the Pepsi challenge. Participants were given either Pepsi or a store-brand cola to drink. But as before they were sometimes lied to about which one they had been given.
This time the researchers weren’t interested in social power but instead on whether people endorsed the idea that life should be exciting and full of enjoyment – something that Pepsi’s advertising encourages, and store-brand cola doesn’t have much to say about.
Again, those who most strongly agreed that life should be full of excitement thought the cola they were told was Pepsi was more tasty, whether or not they actually were drinking Pepsi or not.
Can you taste the difference?
This research is a fascinating demonstration of how quite subtle differences in the way we think about food and drink can have significant influences on how we experience them. It lends more weight to certain explanations of some everyday phenomena:
- Organic food is all the rage and many claim it tastes better – others are not so sure. Organic food producers are probably relying at least partly on the psychological effect demonstrated in this study which will make their food taste better to those who endorse ‘organic worldviews’
- Marketing values. Corporations spend fortunes associating their brands with certain values. In the case of food and beverage producers this study suggests the money is well spent, as long as the values they promote coincide with the consumer’s. While we tend to assume corporations are mainly trying to convince us of the quality of their goods, the associated values are an important factor in the final experience.
- Beer tastes pretty disgusting when you first try it, but some people come to associate it with good times and socialising with friends. Then, over time, it starts to taste better. Others may choose wine or some other type of beverage. We tend to think of this as becoming accustomed to, or developing a taste for that drink. But how each type of beverage tastes is probably influenced by the values you associate with it. If the way you see beer doesn’t accord with your values, then it probably won’t taste so good.
Potato for President?
The authors of the study even wonder if healthy eating could be encouraged by changing the values associated with fruit and vegetables.
Whatever the outcome of the potential rebranding of fruit and vegetables (carrots march into war, aubergines win promotions and a potato is elected as President) this study is certainly a neat demonstration of one more aspect of our everyday experience which is directly influenced by our beliefs and values.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.