Does Performing A ‘Ritual’ Make Food Taste Better?

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Although it might not seem like it, going out to any restaurant can be a ritualistic experience. First, you are seated at a table. Then a drink order might be taken. Next a food order. After these steps are completed, a meal slowly begins to arrive at your table.

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science has found these rituals before eating, like singing “Happy Birthday†before eating cake, can actually enhance the perception of the food being eaten.

Citing her own habits, Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist at the University of Minnesota wondered about how the power of rituals affected our perceptions.

“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 said. “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.”

In collaboration with two colleagues at Harvard Business School, Vohs and her University of Minnesota partner Yajin Wang conducted four experiments to examine just how rituals influence our perception of how food tastes.

In the first experiment, some volunteers were asked to break a chocolate bar in half, unwrap one half, eat the unwrapped half, unwrap the other half and then eat that half. Other participants were told they could eat the same chocolate bar however they liked.

The researchers found the ritualistic eaters rated the chocolate higher, savored it more, and were willing to pay more for it than the other group, suggesting a short, made-up ritual can produce a change in perception.

In the second experiment, the researchers repeated the first experiment except they asked the participants to perform random actions instead of ritualized actions. The random gestures did not change perception of the chocolate. The second experiment also showed delayed eating of food, even less appealing food like carrots, increased gratification after eating it.

The final two experiments suggested an individual must be personally involved in the ritual to increase perceptions – watching someone else perform a ritual doesn’t any have any effect. The team also found that if people are drawn into the ritual, it can fully account for the positive effects on eating experiences.

While these rituals used by the scientists were somewhat mundane, there are many other rituals used around food that could be looked at from an economic or marketing point of view. Vohs noted rituals could play a role in the perceptions of other situations as well.

“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 said.

Ritualized behaviors and subsequent actions are probably most popular in the world of sports. From fans to coaches to players – game day rituals are popular at every level of every sport. In sumo wrestling, each match is preceded by a pregame ritual derived from Shinto religious practices, including a leg-stomping exercise to drive evil spirits from the ring and the tossing of salt to purify the ring.