Positive emotional responses to unfamiliar flavours can be conditioned, a new study suggests – but once flavours become familiar emotional associations cannot easily be erased.
Certain foods have strong emotional associations for consumers. For instance, pizza may be associated with relaxation, and chocolate with indulgence or comfort. For food marketers understanding these associations, and how to create new ones, can mean the difference between a successful product and an unsuccessful one.
The new study sought to establish new connections between the positive emotions joy and contentment and flavoured beverages containing no active substances. The researchers also wanted to see whether connecting positive emotions with a product would change liking, and whether emotional conditioning would occur for familiar and unfamiliar flavours.
The investigation involved two experiments. In the first, 216 participants were randomly allocated to receive a drink with a highly-liked or a moderately-liked flavour, and an emotional setting of joy, contentment or control.
Likability of the flavours, delivered in clear, uncoloured beverages with the same energy content (28.5 kcal per 100ml) was pre-determined by a different set of participants in a pilot study. The emotional settings were created by showing the participants 4-5 minute film clips. Joy was created using classic movie scenes and cartoons; contentment with relaxation videos; and control using technical documentaries and weather reports.
The participants were served the drinks in a laboratory setting on five consecutive days and asked to drink them while watching the films. Liking scores were collected after the third session.
Two days after the final drink-film session, the participants were asked to drink the drinks while attributing an activity level represented by each of seven symbols. The symbols were rotated and inverted from languages unknown to the participants, and they were told that each represented a verb.
The second experiment involved 192 participants who rated their liking of a hot tea and a cold iced tea during recruitment. They were then given their preferred drink for the experiment, and it was assumed that the hot tea would be more associated with contentment and the cold with joy and energy.
The procedure was similar to the first experiment, except that the participants came to three sessions instead of five and they were asked to rank their liking after each.
After analysing the results the researchers found: “It is possible to induce specific positive emotions (here joy and contentment) for specific flavours through emotional conditioning even in the absence of active ingredients.”
They added, however, that this was possible for new flavours but not for familiar flavours.
“This confirms that existing associations cannot be easily erased by new conditioning,” they wrote in the study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Food Quality and Preference.
They added that a remarkable finding was that the emotional conditioning produced differential effects on the liking of the drinks, depending on whether the stimulus evoked joy or contentment.
“The highly liked drink was actually less liked in both the emotional conditions compared to the control condition, while the originally moderately liked drink showed a tendency to be more liked in both emotional conditions than the control condition,” they wrote.
Food Quality and Preference – published online ahead of print
Conditioning unfamiliar and familiar flavours to specific positive emotions
Authors: Kuenzel, J., Zandstra, R., Lion, L., Blanchette, I., Thomas, A., El-Deredy, W