Singing 'Happy Birthday' And Other Rituals Improve Flavor of Food [STUDY]

By iScienceTimes Staff on July 23, 2013 12:04 PM EDT

birthday cake
Singing "Happy Birthday" or performing other pre-meal rituals can improve the taste and perception of food, a new study says. (Photo: Flickr: spool32)

Singing "Happy Birthday," saying grace or performing other pre-meal rituals can make food taste better, a new study says.

The reason that food tastes better after performing a ritual is because it creates an "intrinsic interest" in the food, putting a positive spin on the way one experiences the meal.

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Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, who led the study, noticed pre-meal rituals in her own life, making her curious to explore the behavior formally.

"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," said Vohs. "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 the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, Vohs and her colleagues carried out four experiments to test her theory that rituals enhance the perception and taste of a meal.

In the first study, participants were presented with a chocolate bar. "Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half," the scientists instructed. "Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it." Another group of participants were allowed to eat the chocolate bar at their own pace.

Vohs found that in the first group, those who performed the ritual of unwrapping and consuming the chocolate at intervals found the chocolate to be better, and were willing to pay more for it.

The researchers conducted a second experiment to determine whether these results weren't due to the "random movements," as the study put it, of eating the chocolate bar in two halves. They found that only repeated, fixed behavior changed the experience of eating the food. Even more boring foods like carrots were found to be more enjoyable when there was anticipation and a ritual involved in eating them.

The team conducted two more experiments to test whether watching someone else perform a pre-meal ritual enhanced the taste and experience of the food. They found that watching someone mix a pitcher of lemonade didn't enhance taste for the person not actually performing the ritual.

Vohs says that while singing "Happy Birthday" or performing other small rituals might seem like unimportant activities, they can have a tangible effect on how someone feels about their meal. Vohs now wants to study whether ritualized behavior can have a positive effect on other activities.

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

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