The Time-Fun Paradox

Is there truth in the saying that Time flies when you’re having fun? If so, how well do humans actually perceive the ‘flying’ of time? Do we get bored and feel that time goes slowly when doing something easy? Does time seem to rush past us when doing a difficult task? Does it matter if you’re working with or against someone?

These are some of the questions our research sought to answer.

What are previous studies saying about this?

People generally don’t notice how much time has actually passed when they’re in a jolly mood (Kellaris & Kent, 1992; Droit-Volet & Meck, 2007). On the other hand, it feels as though time “drags” when a person is unhappy, angry, or bored, e.g., when you’re waiting for a 3-hour class to end or when you’re stuck in traffic and it’s super hot outside.

Under stressful conditions, duration is underestimated (Gupta & Khosia, 2006). Stress in such conditions may be caused by the difficulty of the task or the nature of social interaction.

If a difficult task is likely to cause a person distress, then perhaps a person performing such a stressful task would think that more time had passed by. Following the same line of thinking, a person performing an easy task might guess that less time had elapsed since he/she was having fun. Moreover, task difficulty would divert one’s attention from thinking about time. Since attention is a major factor in the subjective measurement of time (Droit-Volet and Gil, 2009), a person performing a difficult, more attention-requiring task would perceive time more inaccurately.

Aside from task difficulty, social interaction has also been found to affect one’s mood (Kelly & Barsade, 2011; Forgas, Bower & Krantz, 1984). In the presence of others, you’d be more positive (that is, unless you don’t like the person for some reason). Hence, if two people work together on the same task, they may not accurately estimate the amount of time it took for them to complete it because, again, it was a fun experience.

But what if those same two people were competing against each other? What would differ?

Competition is known to bring out negative feelings toward the competitor (Deutsch, 1949b). Intuitively, a competitive setting would affect interacting individuals differently and, hence, would result in different perception of time. Competing individuals working on the same task may perform more poorly than either a cooperating duo or a person working on his own. This is because a competitive setting makes one feel more tense, anxious, and panicky (Imagine being told that your performance will be compared with others, even with the person standing right in front of you! Isn’t the thought of it just unsettling already?), causing a person to make more errors—in the task and in guesstimating time.

Our experiment

To test our hypotheses regarding time perception, we conducted an experiment wherein task difficulty and nature of social interaction were manipulated. We randomly selected 120 undergraduate college students to participate.

We made use of two types of tasks: an easy and a difficult one. In the easy task, they simply had to stack soda cans in an inverted pyramid (you can view the blueprint here). In the difficult task, their objective was to throw a 1-peso coin into a water container that was 20 feet away (you can view the blueprint here).

For each task, participants were asked to either cooperate with or compete against each other. There was also a condition where participants were told to work individually and that their performance would not be judged. To prime the participants who were asked to cooperate or compete with each other, they were presented with pre-tested videos which had actors that were rated as interacting cooperatively or competitively.

What did we find?

Our results show that humans aren’t that great at estimating time. We usually underestimate the time it takes for us to do a task–whether it’s easy or difficult, and whether you’re competing against or cooperating with another person. This is because our attention is directed away from the passing of time whenever we are performing tasks, more so if we are not aware that we will be asked to measure how long we think the duration of the activity was.

There are also no significant differences in the perceived time duration of the task among those who did an easy or difficult task alone, with another person in a cooperative interaction, or with another person in a competitive interaction. This means that regardless of how challenging the task is, we incorrectly measure time to more or less the same extent. This could be due to the nature of the tasks as being more physical than cognitive. Whether the task was physically easy or difficult may not have changed the amount of cognitive load or mental processing needed to be able to perform the task.

However, there are correlations between mood and perceived difficulty of task and nature of social interaction. Those who rated their mood as more positive also rated the task to be easier and the social interaction to be more cooperative. Conversely, those who rated their mood as more negative also rated the task to be more difficult and the social interaction to be more competitive. Easy tasks have a higher probability for success versus difficult tasks. Success leads to more positive moods, while failure to complete a difficult task may induce stress, leading to more negative moods. Successfully completing the task may also lead the participants into thinking that they “won” the experiment. Research by McCaul and colleagues (1992) show the effect of winning on emotions – when we win, we feel happy. All of these factors may explain why mood and perceived difficulty of the task are correlated. Mood can also affect social interaction, in the same way that social interaction can also affect mood (Kelly & Barsade, 2011; Forgas et al, 1984). Competitive situations where one can be the winner and one can be the loser can affect our mood, depending on how well we are able to perform relative to the other player. Our mood can also influence how competitive or cooperative we are towards others. People in more positive moods tend to prefer cooperation over competition (Aderman, 1972; Barsade, 2002; Forgas, 1998 as cited in Diener, 2009).

Winning and losing also had an effect on perceived nature of social interaction. Those who won rated their interaction with the other participant as more cooperative. Even if the participants were placed in competitive conditions, those who won may have felt that the environment was not too competitive because they were able to perform better than their opponent, which leads to more positive emotions. Positive emotions are related to more cooperative interactions, which may explain why the winners rated their interactions to be more cooperative. This supports the findings of Deutsch (1949a), which state that cooperative interactions exhibit more positive characteristics, which are also manifested when one successfully performs a task. (Deutsch, 1949a)

Further findings also showed no significant difference between the time estimates of males and females. Despite not being able to get an equal number of male and female participants for the study, this conclusion is still supported by research. Studies by Montare (1985, 1988) suggest that time perception might be equivalent among males and females.

Basically, what does this all mean?

Overall, results show that the nature of social interaction, task difficulty, mood, winning or losing, and the sex of the participant do not affect time perception. However, it was found that mood was correlated with the nature of social interaction and task difficulty. Additionally, those who won had different ratings of interaction as compared to those who lost. Results of competitive and control conditions also showed opposite trends.

How could our study be better?

First, we had a limited and non representative sample. We used Psych 101 students from the University of the Philippines Diliman. Hardly representative of the whole population. We would definitely recommend a larger and wider sample. Another limitation would be the inability to control the participants’ familiarity with one another. Some participants came in as total strangers (they were seriously not talking at all), while some participants came in as friends (aka bantering and joking with each other even during the competitive condition). An experimental set-up with a confederate and one participant could be done to address this issue. Also, since the tasks employed in this study were more physical in nature, it is recommended that tasks that require more cognitive effort in addition to the physical exertion be used for further studies.

Our results seem to contradict much of the current literature. Is it due to the limitations, or are we onto something new? Well, this question is left for more researchers to decide. If you’re planning on replicating this, do keep in mind our recommendations. Who knows? We might just overturn the knowledge that has been around since time immemorial (pun intended).

References

Deutsch, M. (1949a). An experimental study of the effects of cooperation and competition upon group processes. Human Relations, 2, 199–231.

Deutsch, M. (1949b). A theory of cooperation and competition. Human Relations, 2(2), 129–151. doi:10.1177/001872674900200204

Droit-Volet, S., & Gil, S. (2009). The time-emotion paradox. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1525), 1943-1953. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0013

Droit-Volet, S., & Meck, W. H. (2007). How emotions colour our perception of time. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(12), 504-513. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2007.09.008

Forgas, J. P., Bower, G. H., & Krantz, S. E. (1984). The influence of mood on perceptions of social interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 20(6), 497-513. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(84)90040-4

Gupta, A., & Khosla, M. (2006). Influence of Mood on Estimation of Time. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, 32(1), 53-60. Retrieved March 28, 2016.

Kellaris, J. J., & Kent, R. J. (1992). The influence of music on consumers’ temporal perceptions: Does time fly when you’re having fun? Journal of Consumer Psychology, 1(4), 365-376. doi:10.1016/s1057-7408(08)80060-5

Kelly, J. R., & Barsade, S. G. (2001). Mood and Emotions in Small Groups and Work Teams. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86(1), 99-130. doi:10.1006/obhd.2001.2974

McCaul, K. D., Gladue, B. A., & Joppa, M. (1992). Winning, losing, mood, and testosterone [Abstract]. Hormones and Behavior, 26(4), 486-504.

Montare, A. (1985). Learning effects of knowledge of results upon time estimation [abstract]. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 60, 871-877.

Montare, A. (1988). Further learning effects of knowledge of results upon time estimation [abstract]. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 66, 579-588.

Beyond Puppy Love

By Kristel Tiburcio

At the end of the day, one of the things I get excited about coming home is being able to pet and hug my dog (even though at times, he rejects me for squeezing him too much). This becomes more apparent whenever I went through a stressful and hectic schedule within the day. There are also times wherein I would find myself stopping in the middle of reviewing for an exam, writing a major paper, or making a PowerPoint presentation for a report, just to pet my dog, even for a little bit. It would give me the energy to begin the work again. I can say that my dog (besides food) is my ultimate go-to happy pill! I would be one of those who would Facetime with my dog when I’m away from home for more than 24 hours.

Recently, in the city, dog and cat cafes have been a major hit, especially to the young population. I would see posts about visiting these cafes to destress or that visiting is the perfect way to take a break during finals or hell week. And everywhere, around the world, we see a lot of posts from pet owners, or even non-pet owners, who were saved by these little heroes. Dogs, and pets in general, have the power to calm (their) humans. They are heroes just because of what they are! How do they do this? Why is it that a simple touch (or for me, even just imagining touching and petting my dog) can make one happy and feel relaxed? Do dogs even feel the same with their owners? Why can’t we all just have pets, instead of stress balls, since they both fulfill the same function anyway (and for pets, even more!)?

It is not just for the reason that we simply love our pets that’s why we love them. There are also physiological changes inside our body that makes us want to touch, interact, and bond with our pets more. The study by Romero, Nagasawa, Mogi, Hasegawa, and Kikusui (2014) revealed that the human’s oxytocin levels produced within the body increases whenever a dog affiliates with its human partner. Similarly, when oxytocin is sprayed to dogs, they also affiliated with their human partners more, compared to other dogs who were sprayed with a placebo. In effect, this increase in affiliation with human partners will, again, increase the oxytocin levels within the body of its human partner. It’s a cycle that makes the pet and pet owner happy to be with each other! Oxytocin is the hormone known for its role in social affiliation and interaction. You might have encountered it as the “love”, “cuddle”, or “bonding hormone” (Stix, 2014). Despite the fact that interacting with dogs helps in reducing stress and anxiety, in the study by Romero et al. (2014), oxytocin does not function by reducing stress and anxiety. Oxytocin levels were shown to directly increase the motivation to affiliate which may help in reducing stress and anxiety.

Physiological changes due to human-dog interaction do not only include the increase in oxytocin levels. There are other studies made by researchers who are interested in the animal touch that further extends the benefits of petting based on these physiological changes. In a study by Baun, Bergstrom, Langston, and Thoma (1984), blood pressure was shown to experience changes when interacting with dogs. When a person interacts with a dog, especially with a dog they have already established a bond with, his/her blood pressure goes down. This lowering of the blood pressure creates a calm feeling for the human.

Vormbrock and Grossberg (1998) further showed that the “touching” part of interacting with dogs is the major factor of decreasing one’s blood pressure. In their study, they grouped a set of people by type of interaction with the dog: verbally, tactually, or visually. They found that blood pressure was lowest in the group who tactually interacted with the dog – petting the dog – and that heart rates were lower when a person touches or talks to the dog rather than touching and talking to the dog at the same time.

bellyrub

Besides the magic touch of human-dog interactions, it is also interesting to see how pets recognize the voices of their owners. When I say “Come here, Cloud” whenever I hear his foot (paw?) steps outside my door, he comes in without hesitation. However, once he hears a stranger inside the house (usually guests and relatives), he becomes alert – his ears perk up, he stands up immediately, and shifts his attention to (probably) gathering more sensory information about the guest.

A recent study by Andics, Gacsi, Farago, Kis, and Miklosi (2014) shows that just as we have a region in our brain that is sensitive to voices, dogs also have a similar area in their brains. They were able to arrive at this conclusion by testing dogs’ brains through functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI.

SONY DSC

Borbala Ferenczy. Retrieved from Hughes (2014).

Dr. Andics (as mentioned in Hughes, 2014) mentioned that dogs and humans probably have an easier time understanding each other and getting along well because of their similarities in processing social and emotional information. This researchers think that this similarity signifies an evolutionary trait across mammals; however, others believe that it may be due to convergent evolution of man and dogs.

In their study, 11 border collies and golden retrievers were trained to rest in a machine. Since getting inside an fMRI machine may be greatly uncomfortable, training was a necessity in order to properly conduct the experiment and protect the dogs. Once inside the scanner, the dogs and 22 people were exposed to 200 different audio stimuli – “dog vocalizations (whining, playful barking, aggressive barking), human vocalizations (crying, cooing, laughing), and non-voice environmental sounds (cars, ringing phones)” (Hughes, 2014, par. 12).

experiment dogs

Andics, et al. (2014)

It was found that 48% percent of the auditory cortex of dogs responds to non-voice sounds. On the other hand, only 3% of the human auditory cortex responds to non-voice sounds. This means that dogs respond more to non-voice sounds. The researchers explain that human brains are wired to process more voice or speech sounds since we use language to communicate everyday! They were also able to observe that both dogs and people have an area in their brains which respond more to positive emotions than negative emotions. The type of vocalization – whether human or dog – was not a factor; it will respond even if it was a positive bark or happy tone of human voice. Furthermore, there is an area in the human brain called subcortical medial geniculate body (MGB) which responds more to dog sounds than any other sounds.

The video abstract of the study can be found here.

All these studies show the beautiful companionship of dogs and humans. Dogs are not called “man’s best friend” for no reason; their existence becomes a factor in the plasticity and evolution of humans. A simple touch or bark/call can trigger physiological, emotional, and other psychological processes and changes in the human body. So for all dog owners out there, do not take your dog for granted. Love him/her and you will certainly get more love in return.

kristelcloud

With my dog, Cloud! 

 

 

References:

Andics, A., Gacsi, M., Farago, T., Kis, A., & Miklosi, A. (2014). Voice-sensitive regions in the dog and human brain are revealed by comparative fMRI. Current Biology, 24(5), 574-578. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.01.058

Baun, M. M., Bergstrom, N., Langston, N. F., & Thoma, L. (1984). Physiological effects of human/companion animal bonding [Abstract]. Nursing Research, 33(3), 126-129. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6563527

Hughes, V. (2014). How voices tickle the dog brain. Retrieved from the National Geographic website: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/02/20/how-voices-tickle-the-dog-brain/

Romero, T., Nagasawa, M.,Mogi, K., Hasegawa, T., & Kikusui, T. (2014). Oxytocin promotes social bonding in dogs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 111(25), 9085-9090. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1322868111

Stix, G. (2014). Fact or fiction: Oxytocin is the “love hormone”? In Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-oxytocin-is-the-love-hormone/

Vormbrock, J. K. & Grossberg, J. M. (1998). Cardiovascular effects of human-pet dog interactions [Abstract]. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 11(5), 509-517.

 

Pain, Touch & Psychopathology

by Pam Torga

Today’s blog is about psychopathology—Wow, psychopathology sounds schmancy you may say! But what’s it about? And how does it have anything to do with the cutaneous senses?

In a nutshell, psychopathology is about anything psychologically out of the ordinary. As the scientific study of mental disorders, it concerns itself with psychological and behavioral dysfunctions like schizophrenia or bulimia nervosa. One of the most commonly known mental disorders is depression. It affects millions of people around the globe, with the number of diagnosed patients increasing by 20% every year (Healthline, 2016).

As complex as the disorder already is, one thing frequently associated with depression is pain. Studies conducted by Large (1980), Chandarana et al. (1987) and Magni et al. (1990) show that depression is diagnosed in 18%-30% of chronic pain patients. This suggests that depression in these patients is not only a consequence of pain, but may itself cause or enhance pain (Adler & Gattaz, 1993). In addition to psychodynamic mechanisms, Carriere (1981) suggested that a decrease of the pain threshold is genuinely related to depression.

Numerous studies on pain threshold in depressed patients have been done. However, the exact effect of the disorder on one’s perception of pain is still unclear as the thresholds reported by researchers appear to be inconsistent. Most authors report a decrease in the pain threshold in depressed patients (Ward et al., 1982; Otto et al., 1989; Moroz et al., 1990 as cited in Adler & Gattaz, 1993), some report an increase (Marazziti et al., 1991 as cited in Adler & Gattaz, 1993). One study devoted to the somatosensory perception threshold (SPT) and pain perception threshold (PPT) in individuals diagnosed with major depression found that PPT is negatively correlated with anxiety (Adler & Gattaz, 1993) . This suggests that a reduction of pain perception thresholds for patients with depression may be attributed to anxiety and impaired stress-coping.

As I was trying to comprehend the results of similar studies, one underlying idea became salient for me: Psychological disorders have the power to alter our senses or, at least, what we perceive our senses to be telling us. Now more than ever, it became quite clear to be that the mind has control over what the body believes it experiences. This control outweighs external influence, e.g.,the perception of pain is altered not by an increase of pain stimulation from the surrounding but rather by a change in the person’s internal vulnerability to it.

A prime example of how the mind dictates the senses is observed in somatic symptom disorder. This abnormality emphasizes the centrality of medically unexplained symptoms. To be diagnosed,  one must satisfy the following criteria set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: (a) one or more somatic symptoms that are distressing or result in significant disruption of daily life; (b) excessive thoughts, feelings, or behaviors to the somatic symptoms or associated health concerns, and; (c) persistent state of being symptomatic (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

A distinctive characteristic of many individuals with somatic symptom disorder is not the somatic symptoms per se, but instead the way they present and interpret them. Incorporating affective, cognitive, and behavioral components into the criteria for this disorder provides a more comprehensive and accurate reflection of the true clinical picture than can be achieved by assessing the somatic complaints alone. With that said, individuals with disorders having prominent somatic symptoms are commonly encountered in primary care and medical settings and are less commonly encountered in psychiatric and other mental health settings (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

A number of factors may contribute to somatic symptoms and related disorders. This includes genetic and biological vulnerability (e.g., increased sensitivity to pain). The experienced somatic symptoms, oddly, have no sufficient physiological basis—the hallmark of somatoform disorders. So, the feeling of  pain or sickness is there, but a physiological manifestation is absent.

Surprisingly, these there-but-not-really symptoms aren’t rare. In a study of the general population, 81.6% of the participants reported at least one medically unexplained symptom (MUS) and 22.1% reported mild impairment associated with at least one MUS (Hiller, Rief & Brähler, 2006). Three out of four cases in a primary care study  reported medially unexplained physical symptoms (Körber, et al., in press as cited in Witthöft, Basfeld, Steinhoff, & Gerlach, 2012).

The existence of somatoform disorders elucidates that touch isn’t most strongly influenced by external stimuli. Touch, it turns out, is the result of cortical stimulation.Although it seems almost intuitive that the idea of a sensation~must~ be triggered by an actual sensation experienced by the body, somatoform disorders prove that that isn’t always the case. But that isn’t the case. Symptoms like pain or ache for somatoform disorders are not caused by physiological stimulation. Rather, these are “all in the mind.” From this one can appreciate just how multifaceted cutaneous senses are. It isn’t a straightforward relationship between being touched and perceiving touch. It is more accurately a route from being touched to thinking we are touched, which is more or less simultaneous with the perception of touch. Psychopathology is a window to the actual mechanisms of somatosensory perception. Chronic pain is not a symptom but a syndrome in its own right, and requires therapists from a wide range of disciplines.

Cognitive theories of medically unexplained (“somatoform”) symptoms stress the importance of alterations in attention and memory processes. Accordingly, specific schemata are hypothesized to (mis-)guide the processing of somatosensory stimuli leading to the formation of symptom-like perceptions. Health complaints or somatic symptoms for which no sufficient medical explanation can be found are a frequent and normal phenomenon in the general population (e.g., Eriksen & Ursin, 2004 as cited in Witthöft, Basfeld, Steinhoff, & Gerlach, 2012) and the hallmark of somatoform disorders (Witthöft & Hiller, 2010).

Although the duration and the level of distress associated with the respective symptoms are important clinical criteria according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM–IV–TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), the exact turning point at which somatic complaints turn into clinically relevant somatoform disorders is poorly understood. Moreover, although somatoform disorders are the most prevalent mental disorders in primary care (e.g., Hanel et al., 2009; Toft et al., 2005), compared with other mental disorders such as affective or anxiety disorders, research concerning the etiology and pathogenesis of MUS is rather limited.

Another interesting study connecting somatosensory perception and psychopathology was done by Pavony & Lenzenweger (2014). They particularly looked at the relationship between somatosensory processing and borderline personality disorder, where they focused on pain perception, proprioception, and exteroceptive sensitivity.

Approximately two thirds of those with borderline personality disorder (BPD) who self-injure report diminished sensitivity to pain during acts of self-harm. Research on pain perception suggests that abnormalities of the motivational-affective domain likely contribute to the commonly reported hypo-analgesia evidenced in BPD. It is not that BPD individuals cannot detect or feel painful stimuli, rather their response to it seems to reflect differences in tolerance and willingness to report a stimulus as painful. Although specific processes involved with pain insensitivity have been debated in literature, the likelihood of generalized dysfunction in the somatosensory systems in BPD has not been considered. Prior BPD research has focused only on the pain submodality of somatosensation. Pavony & Lenzenweger (2014) assessed pain perception (nociception), basic touch (exteroception), and body sense (proprioception) somatosensory submodalities, in an effort to determine if generalized somatosensory deficits are present in BPD. Their findings are consistent with (but do not prove) a specific dysfunction in the pain-specific mechanism of sensitivity and perception in BPD, perhaps one that does not disturb the other somatosensory modalities. Data such as this helps to provide a more established empirical basis for pain insensitivity as an genetic determinant  of BPD.

Versteeg et al. (2010) found that somatosensory amplification mediates sex differences in psychological distress. They examined whether females with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) would report more psychological distress than males, and whether somatosensory amplification mediates this relationship. Versteeg et al. (2010) concluded that somatosensory amplification did in fact mediate the relationship between female sex and heightened anxiety, phobic anxiety, and somatic health complaints in ICD patients. Women may be more likely to misinterpret bodily sensations as indicative of deterioration in their condition. The researchers suggested that nterventions focusing on modifying these dysfunctional beliefs may reduce their psychological distress.

Most people may be perplexed by the lack of a clear-cut boundary and/or connection between cutaneous senses and abnormal psychology. However, I encourage you to stand back, appreciate and be at awe for this intricate relationship. Perhaps someday, when we have access to more advanced technology, we will be able to see how our mind and our sense of touch are exactly intertwined.

Finally, before I end this blog, here are dog GIFs:

References:

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Healthline (2016). Depression Statistics: Unhappiness by the Numbers [INFOGRAPHIC]. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/statistics-infographic

Pavony, M. T., & Lenzenweger, M. F. (2014). Somatosensory processing and borderline personality disorder: Pain perception and a signal detection analysis of proprioception and exteroceptive sensitivity. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment5(2), 164-171. doi:10.1037/per0000017

Versteeg, H., Baumert, J., Kolb, C., Pedersen, S. S., Denollet, J., Ronel, J., & Ladwig, K. (2010). Somatosensory amplification mediates sex differences in psychological distress among cardioverter-defibrillator patients. Health Psychology29(5), 477-483. doi:10.1037/a0020337

Witthöft, M., Basfeld, C., Steinhoff, M., & Gerlach, A. L. (2012). Can’t suppress this feeling: Automatic negative evaluations of somatosensory stimuli are related to the experience of somatic symptom distress. Emotion, 12(3), 640-649. doi:10.1037/a0024924

 

Encaptured by a Restaurant’s Menu

By Daniella Dimaunahan

Have you ever noticed how restaurants design their menu in order to catch the attention of customers and supposedly influence their overall dining experience? Choosing a meal from a restaurant menu may be quite challenging, especially if given a wide array of choices presented in an enticing and mouth-watering way. Given that various factors and an interaction between our senses are involved in the perception of flavor, you could probably notice that some restaurants try to incorporate this finding by including descriptive labels of the dishes in their menu. Then again, there are still some food joints that make use of generic and straightforward names in their menu labels.

Descriptive labels usually give the customer an idea of what to expect from the dish, including the food’s taste quality and how it will make them feel. It can be divided into four categories: geographic labels, affective labels, sensory labels, and brand labels. Geographic labels such as Southwestern Tex-Mex Salad and Cajun Fried Chicken claim to mimic similar flavors particularly found in a specific region. On the other hand, affective labels try to elicit a sense of nostalgia by using labels or adjectives that relate to family, tradition, and nationalism. Nana’s Favorite Chicken Soup, Grandma’s Homemade Apple Pie, and Home-style Chicken Parmesan are some good examples. Moreover, sensory labels aim to accurately describe the taste, smell, and texture of a menu item. Buttery Plump Pasta, Tender Grilled Chicken, and Satin Chocolate Pudding are some examples of sensory labels. Lastly, brand labels like Jack Daniels BBQ Ribs and Butterfinger Blizzard involves a cross-promotion with a popular but relevant brand.

Several studies have showed that labels could influence taste. However, most of these studies focused on nutritional labels, health labels, and warning labels, and not on descriptive marketing-oriented labels. In order to examine the relationship between descriptive food labels and taste and determine how consumers respond to these labels, Wansink, Painter, & van Ittersum (2001, 2005) conducted a six-week-long field experiment of six menu items in a faculty cafeteria at the University of Illinois. The items and conditions were presented in a systematic rotational pattern during the Tuesday and Friday lunch period until all items were present in all conditions. Two items would either have a basic label, a descriptive label, or would be taken out from the list. A questionnaire was given out once a diner selects one of the sex targeted menu items. The researchers found out that descriptive labels increased sales by 27%, increased post-trial evaluations of quality and value, increased restaurant-related attitudes, and increased customers’ intentions to return to the cafeteria. Menu items with descriptive names were rated as more appealing, taste, caloric, and of better quality and value. In spite of this, customers rarely said that they would pay more for the descriptively labeled item.

A study by Lockyer (2006) also confirms that the wording and description of a menu item does have an effect on the selection of items on a menu. Descriptive words such as “Tender”, “Golden”, and “Natural” had a positive effect to the choice of menu items and participants in this study had a preference for items that were clear, tasty, mouthwateringly described, fresh, and natural.

With this, it could be said that menu design and appropriate wording of menu items are especially important in the restaurant business. It may lead to an increase in sales and affect a customer’s overall satisfaction. So, for future restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, take note!! Descriptive labeling might be the key. 🙂

References

Goldstein, E. B. (2013). Sensation and perception (9th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Lockyer, T. (2006). Would a restaurant menu item by any other name taste as sweet? Hospitality Review, 24(1). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1413&context=hospitalityreview

Wansink, B., Painter, J., & van Ittersum, K. (2001). Descriptive menu labels’ effect on sales. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 42(4), 68-72. Retrieved from http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/sites/default/files/unmanaged_files/descriptivemenulabels-2001.pdf

Wansink, B., van Ittersum, K., & Painter, J. (2005). How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. Food Quality and Preference, 16, 393-400. Doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2004.06.005

The Taste of Thin

by Bella Tan

This entry will be a bit different from the rest of the entries because it’s going to talk about a heavy topic: eating disorders. Specifically, this entry will focus on anorexia and bulimia.

Bulimia

Bulimia is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder. Bulimics can be either purging or non-purging. Purging bulimics self-induce vomiting or abuse diuretics and laxatives. Non-purging bulimics find other ways to rid themselves of calories (Mayo Clinic, 2016).

Anorexia

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorders that is characterized by a fear of gaining weight. Anorexics try to control their body shape by caloric restriction or by bingeing and purging. The main difference between the two disorders is that anorexics are typically underweight, while bulimics are typically normal to above normal weight (Mayo Clinic, 2016).

Eating disorders and taste

Obviously, there is something different in the way that anorexics and bulimics think and feel about food. However, is it possible that they actually experience food differently? In other words, does food taste different for people with eating disorders? Research results have been mixed, but most researchers do agree that there is some difference between people with eating disorders and healthy people.

For instance, Simon, Bellisle, Monneuse, Samuel-Lajeunesse, and Drewnowski (1993) found that anorexic patients disliked the taste of fatty foods more than healthy controls did. However, perceptions for sweet foods did not vary between controls and anorexics. In another study, Drewnowski, Halmi, Pierce, Gibbs, and Smith (1987) found that sensory estimates of sweetness and fat content of different substances did not differ between anorexics, bulimics, and healthy controls. However, normal weight bulimics preferred sweeter substances compared to the control. Anorectic-restrictor and anorectic-bulimic participants preferred sweet but not high-fat substances. Basically, although anorexics and bulimics may be able to estimate the levels of sweetness and fattiness just like healthy people do, there is a definite difference in preference

Brain imaging studies seem to show differences as well. A study by Monteleone and colleagues (2015) found that there is dysfunctional activation of the areas involved in taste perception, as well as in the reward circuits of the brain following presentation of pleasurable and aversive taste stimuli. Another study found pinpointed specific areas of the brain that were affected: the left insula, the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the right parietal cortex (Monteleone et al, 2016).

Right now, I’ll talk about an interesting brain imaging study about eating disorders.

This study was conducted by Oberndorfer and colleagues (2013). The researchers looked at the brain response to sweet stimuli. Sucrose and sucralose solutions were given to recovered anorexics, recovered bulimics, and healthy controls. Following this, fMRI was used to determine brain activity. Compared to the healthy controls, the right anterior insula (the anterior insula is widely established to be the primary taste cortex) responded differently in anorexics and bulimics– in anorexics, there was diminished activation, while there was increased activation for bulimics. The researchers suggest that there is a dysregulation in terms of hedonic (pleasurable) taste processing for people with eating disorders. Furthermore, decreased activation of the insula in anorexics could be a signal of constant satiety, while the increased activation of this structure in bulimics could be a signal of constant hunger. Another difference between recovered anorexics and bulimics from healthy controls was that the insulas of the control group responded similarly to sucrose and sucralose, while for anorexics, there was a greater response to sucrose, and for bulimics, there was a greater response to sucralose. The researchers suggest that this has something to do with sensitivity to caloric content of food.

What does this all mean?

Basically, the bottomline is that anorexics and bulimics perceive food differently, and this difference is not just imagined, as their brains react differently than healthy people’s when given food.

Anorexia and bulimia are real and serious disorders that threaten the lives of many people. In other words, if you are reading this, and feel like you or someone you know has an eating disorder, please do get help. You may end up saving a life.

Sources
Anorexia nervosa. (2016, January 28). Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anorexia/home/ovc-20179508
Bulimia nervosa. (2016, January 29). Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bulimia/home/ovc-20179821
Drewnowksi, A., Kalmi, K. A., Pierce, B., Gibbs, J., Smith, G. P. (1987). Taste and eating disorders [Abstract]. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 46(3), 422-450.
Monteleone, A. M., Esposito, F., Prinster, A., Cantone, E., Canna, A., Pellegrino, F., Nigro, M., Amodio, R., Volpe, U., Di Salle, F., Monteleone, P. (2016). Sweet and bitter taste perception in anorexia nervosa: A functional MRI study [Abstract]. European Psychiatry, 33(Supplement). DOI: 10.1016/j.eurpsy.2016.01.467
Monteleone, A. M., Esposito, F., Prinster, A., Cantone, E., Volpe, U., Pellegrino, F., Nigro, M., Canna, A., Di Salle, F., Monteleone, P. (2015). Pleasant and aversive taste perception in anorexia nervosa: A functional MRI study [Abstract]. European Psychiatry, 30(Supplement), 28-31. DOI: 10.1016/S0924-9338(15)31157-3
Oberndorfer, T. A., Frank, G. K. W., Simmons, A. N., Wagner, A., McCurdy, D., Fudge, J. L., Yang, T. T., Paulus, M. P., Kaye, W. H. (2013). Altered insula response to sweet taste processing after recovery from anorexia and bulimia nervosa. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170(10), 1143-1151.
Simon, Y., Bellisle, F., Monneuse, M. O., Samuel-Lajeuneusse, B., Drewnowski, A. (1993). Taste responsiveness in anorexia nervosa [Abstract]. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 162(2), 244-246. DOI: 10.1192/bjp.162.2.244

Should We Play With Our Food?

By Janine See

We love to eat. We are biologically wired to consume food to nourish our bodies, give us energy to function, and keep us healthy and strong. As time went on, our preference for the things we eat, like us human beings, has evolved. From eating simple meats, plants, fruits and vegetables, humans have evolved to be more sophisticated (and picky) eaters. Food cannot just be nutritious; it also has to be delicious and appetizing. Restaurants that make beautiful plates of food are Instagram-ed, food bloggers are now an in thing, and somehow, everybody seems to think they’re foodies. Our fascination with food and the need to make our tummies happy after every meal are not unusual phenomena. There is a reason why we crave for certain flavors, find some plates more appealing than others, and have personal favorites and aversions.

Our experience of food is brought about by the work of many of our senses. We taste food when it enters our mouth and stimulates our receptors on the tongue, and we smell food when the aroma enters our nose. The stimulation from our oral and nasal receptors combine to form what we call “flavor”, which most of us commonly refer to as “taste”. When one sense is blocked, our experience of flavor changes, and it may even be completely removed. This is why we cannot fully experience the flavor of the food we eat when we have a stuffy nose.

Our experience of food is also shaped by how it sounds. Imagine eating a potato chip – how weird would it be if you didn’t hear the familiar crunch right after you bite into it? A study by Zampini and Spence in 2004 explored the role of auditory cues in our perception of the crispness and staleness of potato chips. They asked participants to bite into potato chips while altering the frequency and volume of the crunch they heard, and found that even though the texture of the chips were the same, they judged the chips to be more crisp and fresh when the overall sound level or the high frequency sounds of the crunch were increased. This shows that indeed, what we hear greatly affects how we perceive food to be.

How food looks is also one big factor that influences our experience of food. We expect certain fruits to be of a certain color – bananas should be yellow, strawberries should be red, blueberries should be blue, and so on. When food goes against our expectations for how they should look like, we respond in two ways: either we are so intrigued by it that we want to try it, or we are so weirded out by it that we cannot even imaging eating it.

Recently, a certain company has come out with a line of multi-colored ketchup that they claim will be a hit, especially to the kids. To be honest, this does not appeal to me at all. I like my banana ketchup to be red, like how it’s supposed to be, and I cannot accept it to come in a different color (especially blue!). Imagine putting blue ketchup on your fries. That’s just weird. But I guess there is a reason why the company decided to invest in such products. Maybe they wanted to capitalize on a different kind of visual stimulation (making food art, perhaps?) that can make people want to eat colored ketchup. A lot of moms claim that they have an easier time getting their kids to eat because they can have fun and make art on their food, so I guess we can say that this playful modification of a typically red condiment still has its merits.

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Regardless of how much or how little we want to eat food that comes in a color different from what we expect, one thing is for certain – our perception of flavor identity is altered when we change the color of food. Whether colors are enhanced, subdued or completely changed, our experience of food is dependent on what we see with our eyes.

A research done by Maga (1974, as cited by Spence, Levitan, Shankar, & Zampini, 2010) supports this claim. He observed that green-colored solutions increased the taste sensitivity of the participants to sweetness, while yellow had the opposite effect. For sour tastes, adding yellow or green coloring to solutions increased the participants’ taste sensitivity. Red had no effect on both sweet and sour taste sensitivities. For bitter tastes, a decrease in taste sensitivity was observed for red, while yellow and green did not show any effect. For salt solutions, no effect was observed for any of the three colors.

Another study by Guéguen (2003) explored the effect of the color of the glass on the thirst-quenching quality of beverages. Forty undergraduate students were asked to sample the same beverages contained in four glasses of different colors – blue, yellow, green and red. Each participant was asked to sample the drinks in a certain random order, then asked to identify which glass contained the most thirst-quenching beverage. Results of the study reflected that the blue glass was rated to be the most thirst-quenching in 47.5% of the cases, followed by the green glass with 25%, the red glass with 15%, then the yellow glass with 12.5%. Comparing the results based on the coolness and warmness of the colors, the cool colors (blue and green) appeared to be associated with a more thirst-quenching quality versus the warm colors. This may be attributed to the associations people make with color and sensory qualities. Since blue and green were perceived to be cool colors, this “cool” quality was associated with the feeling of being rehydrated or refreshed after drinking a beverage, which may explain why the participants rated these colors higher than red and yellow.

All of these evidences support how our experience of food is shaped by what we sense in our world. Visual and auditory cues, flavor and personal expectations are just some of the modalities with which we experience food. Changing any one of these factors can also change our eating experience, so the next time you’re feeling adventurous, why not try it out? Our parents may have told us not to play with our food, but if it’s for the pursuit of knowledge, how can they stop us?

References:
Goldstein, E. B. (2013). Sensation and perception (9th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Guéguen, N. (2003). The Effect of Glass Colour on the Evaluation of a Beverage’s Thirst-Quenching Quality. Current Psychology Letters, 2(11). Retrieved May 14, 2016, from http://cpl.revues.org/398
Spence, C., Levitan, C. A., Shankar, M. U., & Zampini, M. (2010). Does Food Color Influence Taste and Flavor Perception in Humans? Chem. Percept. Chemosensory Perception, 3(1), 68-84.
Zampini, M., & Spence, C. (2004). The Role Of Auditory Cues In Modulating The Perceived Crispness And Staleness Of Potato Chips. J Sensory Studies Journal of Sensory Studies, 19(5), 347-363. doi:10.1111/j.1745-459x.2004.080403.x