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Ritual Vices: Rolling Your Own Joints and Making Toasts Probably Enhances Your Enjoyment

A new study says that routines and rituals not only make food you prepare taste better, but impact your engagement with vices, too.

by Zach Sokol
Jul 25 2013, 1:00pm
Image via Flickr Creative Commons

Do sandwiches taste better when you make them yourself and cut the bread in a specific way, like starting at the left corner and slicing diagonally towards the other? Have you noticed that coffee is more enjoyable when you prepare it in a specific order—cream first, then half a packet of sugar? Professors at Minnesota University researched precisely this phenomenon: they conducted experiments that might explain why DIY food and beverages enhance consumption. 

In a newly published paper, "Rituals Enhance Consumption," the researchers claim food and drinks may actually be tastier and more enjoyable when consumers engage in routines or rituals before putting anything in their eager mouths. Saying "cheers" and clinking glasses may make your beer the best Blue Moon ever, as compared to just popping the top open and guzzling the brew, fraternity-style. 

The study, published in Psychological Science, tested the hypothesis through a variety of experiments. These included giving particpants a bar of chocolate and telling them to break it in half before unwrapping, then slowly eating it piece by piece. These individuals were then asked to rate the taste of the chocolate and state the price they would pay for it. Consistently, those who engaged in the unwrapping ritual favored the chocolate more and said they'd pay more for it, compared to those who ate the sweets without any routine. 

The researchers defined a ritual as "symbolic activity that often includes repeated and unusual behaviors occuring in fixed, episodic sequences." This could include slicing an apple, pouring sugar into one's coffee in increments, or even, perhaps, rolling a joint before smoking instead of packing a bowl. 

With that in mind, I spoke to the paper's co-author, Michael Norton, an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of Happy Money: The Science Of Smarter Spending. I was curious whether engaging in a ritual impacted less orthodox activities, too. Norton said that while the research did not specifically examine routines related to drug consumption, "engaging in rituals increases involvement in subsequent consumption, whether that consumption is of vices or virtues."

He noted that other research "suggests that exerting effort enhances people's liking of products," which Norton called "The IKEA Effect" (in reference to the Swedish furniture company that requires furniture-buyers to do some mild assembling themselves) in another research paper. 

"Rolling your own cigarettes is likely to make you enjoy them more," he said. The logic could feasibly translate to any substance or nourishment ingested by the body, be it drugs or vitamin supplements. 

In the final experiment conducted in the rituals study, researchers depicted that when subjects watched someone else mix lemonade, they did not enjoy it more, indicating that personal involvement is vital to routines and rituals. The experiments described in Professor Norton's paper "The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads To Love," demonstrated that personal involvement in making or building things led to more favorable opinions of the objects in question.

One of the experiments that had subjects build origami suggested that "the IKEA effect is large enough to cause people to value their creations as highly as the creations of experts, offering support for the considerable magnitude of the effect." This means that watching others engage in routines or rituals will not make your food taste better. Individuals have to sing happy birthday with everyone else for the ritual to effect their taste psychology. 

This could explain why customizeable ice cream stores or make-your-own-salad bars are popular, as well as stores like Build-A-Bear (which is referenced in the "IKEA Effect" study). Rituals could be key for enhanced dining and drinking—and the Minnesota University researchers note that the French, known for their love of food, "heavily ritualize eating, which is likely a major reason why 'French kids eat everything.'" 

The psychology of taste is a bizarre topic that is information gold for marketors, advertisers and product developers. After all, who would have thought that the color of a spoon could change our taste experience? So roll your own cigarettes, make your own drinks, and don't forget to say cheers. Your beer will taste all the better. 

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