Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake isn't just for fun, it may actually improve the taste of the cake!
The rituals we perform before eating - even the seemingly insignificant ones - can actually change our perception of the food we eat, according to a new collection of studies published in the journal Psychological Science.
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 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," Vohs added.
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 wished.
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 food.
The data also showed 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 subjective taste.
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.