"If you think about it, through most of human existence, we ate what was available," says John Hayes, an associate professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University. "Or if we didn't eat what was available, we ate what our dominant culture was. Imagine in 1950s Britain, you probably ate sausages and boiled potatoes and overly boiled vegetables."
"Today," he continues, "you can get chicken tikka everywhere."
While access, culture, and habits are huge factors in determining what foods we consume, in the last few years, a handful of studies have shown that personality traits also have some influence over what we choose to put in our mouths.
Spicy Risk Takers
For example, according to research by Hayes (a self-professed chili head for more than 20 years) and former Penn State grad student Nadia Byrnes, people who like to ride fast rollercoasters or enjoy being the center of attention at a party probably also order their wings with the hottest flavor profile available. In two different studies, Hayes and Byrnes examined the role personality plays in the intake of spicy foods.
In the first, which published in 2013, Byrnes and Hayes gathered the answers of 97 people who rated the intensity of capsaicin (the active component of chili peppers) samples. After analyzing their answers alongside the results of a personality survey, they found that people who tend to seek sensations (for example, those who like to drive fast on a twisty road) were more likely to enjoy and eat spicy foods. They also found that people sensitive to reward (those who enjoy being praised and winning in competitions) were also more likely to eat spicy foods.
The second study, which came out earlier this year, confirmed these findings and went on to clarify that while a person with sensitivity to reward may eat spicy foods, that does not necessarily mean that person actually likes spicy food. The takeaway, Hayes explains to Broadly, is that "personality influences liking, which influences intake, but personality can also influence intake without actually influencing your liking for the food."
This reveals how multi-factorial food choices are, he says. "It's about things like culture and our food environment and not just what we like to eat."
The Sweetest Things
In 2011, another group of researchers investigated whether conceptual metaphors, like when caring people are referred to as "sweet," can offer any insight into personality processes. After executing five different studies, which included seeing if participants volunteered to do another survey without compensation, researchers found that people who like sweets, such as candy, caramel, and chocolate cake, tend to be friendly and compassionate—sweethearts, essentially.
"People high in agreeableness liked sweet foods to a greater extent than did people low in agreeableness," the authors write, "and, perhaps of more importance, such preferences for sweet food tastes predicted laboratory measures of prosocial functioning [such as helping, sharing, or volunteering]."
Alternatively, a person who has a penchant for black coffee, tonic water, or radishes might be a psychopath. According to work released last year by Austrian researchers that surveyed a total of almost 1,000 people, those who prefer bitter-tasting foods and drinks are more likely to have anti-social personality traits, such as being manipulative, callous, and/or insensitive.
General bitter taste preferences emerged as a robust predictor for Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism, and everyday sadism
"General bitter taste preferences emerged as a robust predictor for Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism, and everyday sadism," the study's authors write. Furthermore, "the results suggest that how much people like bitter tasting foods and drinks is stably tied to how dark their personality is."
Life Is Like a Box of Chocolates
While the academic research is still in its early stages, Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychologist specializing in the treatment of smell and taste loss at the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, has been connecting people's taste preferences to their personality traits for years. He's written a number of books, including What Flavor is Your Personality, among others. Hirsch says he and his team have looked at the taste preferences and personality profiles of more than 18,000 people, making correlations using everything from snacks and breakfast foods to ice cream flavors.
"Basically everything we do reflects our underlying personality—the direction you comb your hair, the color tie you wear, the of shoes you wear, even the model car you drive," Hirsch tells Broadly. "The question is: are we smart enough to figure out what it means? That's basically what we've done with food preferences."
One study looked at the vodka flavor preferences. Commissioned in the early 2000s by the company that distributed Stolichnaya vodka at the time, the researchers conducted several hours of personality tests. The subjects then blind-tested various flavors of vodka, including peach, vanilla, orange, and others, thus producing a statistical correlation between vodka flavor preferences and personality typing.
According to Hirsch's findings, people who say they like peach vodka tend to be "lively, dramatic, and enthusiastic." In contrast, cranberry vodka lovers tend to be serious, dull in bed, and work too much. Meanwhile, vanilla vodka drinkers are "impulsive, emotionally driven" and like to be around other people.
Basically everything we do reflects our underlying personality—the direction you comb your hair, the color tie you wear, the of shoes you wear, even the model car you drive
Hirsch says one possible reason explaining why what we consume says so much about who we are is chronology. "Our personality develops ages 0-7, which is the same time that our food preferences develop," he says.
He also points out that the parts of the brain that have to do with our personality and where our olfactory and gustatory systems localize are in the same area. "Anatomically, they're very close together," he says. "It makes some sense."
Hayes, co-author of the spicy foods research, suggests this connection between food choices and personality traits might have to do with balancing natural selection. "Humans are tribal creatures," he says. "If you go back to when we were cavemen, the unit of evolution is not the person, it's the tribe. We want people to stay home and pick the berries and we want people who are going to go out and hunt the mastodon. It's an advantage if we have both in our tribe."
"That's a part of the human condition," he continues. "The fact that this shows up in our food ways probably isn't that surprising."