The Subjectivity of Taste

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When I was a young child, my mother tried to get me to eat healthy foods. She would try to disguise vegetables as snacks or meat by simply saying they were something that looked similar. Carrots became cheese, broccoli became cauliflower (I used to like cauliflower), and tomatoes became cherries. Somehow, my mother was able to trick me into thinking that she was right, and I never second guessed her, but now that I think about it, how did I not? A tomato could never taste like a cherry and carrot never cheese. When reading the Escoffier chapter of Proust Was a Neuroscientist by John Lehrer for my BIOL190 course, something that caught my eye was the experiment on wine tasters run by Frederic Brochet. Established wine tasters were given fancy wine labeled as cheap wine and cheap wine labeled as fancy wine. It was astonishing that established wine tasters were unable to tell the difference between the cheap wine from the more refined wines simply because they were mis-labeled. Merely re-labeling cheap wine as expensive wine and vice-versa was enough to deceive their senses and make them think they were tasting something that they weren’t. This phenomenon of altering the information that we collect with our own senses reminded me of my mother’s devious vegetable feeding tricks. How did both my younger-self and the wine tasters get tricked? Keep reading to find out!

As it happens, a study with similar content to my own personal experience was run in 2009 by Ryan S. Elder and Aradhna Krishna. The study focused on how the advertising of food companies can invoke certain taste responses on their consumers. In a nutshell, food companies want to know which kind of slogans they can use to make their consumers spend more money on their products. The study took chewing gum as the product it would use to measure taste responses based on whether the advertising method attacks multiple senses or just one (Aradhna and Elder 20091). The multiple sense slogan “Stimulate Your Senses” had a higher taste rating than the single sense slogan “Long Lasting Flavor” (Aradhna and Elder 20091). The results for each gum were scaled on a taste rating from 1-7, 7 being the best tasting and 1 being the worst tasting (Aradhna and Elder 20091). Out of a group of 10 students that tasted the two types of gum the multiple sense slogan earned a 5.39 average score while the single sense slogan had a 4.77 (Aradhna and Elder 20091). Aside from simply the taste, the multiple sense slogan was able to earn higher scores in other sense categories such as sight, smell, and touch (Aradhna and Elder 20091). A similar study was run for popcorn, but there were two conditions this time. There was a load group and a non-load group, the load group had to do a simple cognitive task before eating the food such as memorizing a list of names (Aradhna and Elder 20091). Similarly, the multiple sense advertised product had higher mean scores, the data can be visualized in the graph below. 

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Figure from (Aradhna and Elder 20091)

The conclusion of these two studies is that cognition is the key to what we think we sense. It doesn’t matter if something is actually good or bad, it depends on how good or bad we THINK something is before we even get to taste, touch, smell, hear, or see it. This is a classic example of top-down processing interfering with bottom-up processing. To better understand this phenomenon, we need to understand bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing is the type of processing that starts with our senses and ends with conscious thought. For example, if we eat an apple, our taste buds are able to communicate electrical signals to our brain after which we are able to judge the taste of a food. Top-down processing is the opposite. Our processing starts with conscious thoughts like expectations and past experiences which changes the way we perceive things. Top-down processing interfering with bottom-up processing is what causes “mis-sensing.” For example, if something is sweet and it is labeled as sour, we expect the item to taste sour, this expectation leads our conscious thoughts to affect our perception of taste and cause us to “mis-taste” the sweet item as sour. This is exactly how the wine tasters and I were tricked, our top-down processing was used to interfere with our bottom-up processing.

Works Cited

Ryan S. Elder, Aradhna Krishna, The Effects of Advertising Copy on Sensory Thoughts and Perceived Taste, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 36, Issue 5, February 2010, Pages 748-756, https://doi.org/10.1086/605327

Aakash Parthasarathy

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bridget Hurley says:

    This was a really great post! I’m super interested in marketing and this is definitely a very important aspect to consider for those in marketing because as you show, different types of labels can trick the brain to believe something that might not seem to be true without it. Also, my parents used to do something similar to me when I was a little kid because I was really picky and wouldn’t eat a lot of foods. They tricked me into thinking it was a food that I did like, and I believed them every time!

  2. Ailin Tang says:

    Hi Aakash! I really enjoyed reading your blog, especially your personal experience with the subjectivity of test. The influence and power of our mind over all the other sensations of our body is intriguing and fascinating. It is almost absurd to think about how our brains can overpower our senses and lead us to think or detect something that is completely different, especially when it comes to food!

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