Fargo, N.D. – If you’re dealing with a crabby co-worker or sour-faced friend, perhaps some new research can help. It sheds light on the question: Can eating sweets make you—well—sweet? A new study by researchers at North Dakota State University, Fargo, Gettysburg College and Saint Xavier University suggests people with a “sweet tooth” have sweeter dispositions. The research was conducted by Dr. Brian Meier, associate professor of psychology at Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pa.; Dr. Michael D. Robinson, NDSU professor of psychology; Dr. Sara Moeller, assistant professor at Saint Xavier University, Chicago, Ill.; and Miles Riemer-Peltz of Gettysburg College.
The paper, “Sweet Taste Preferences and Experiences Predict Pro-Social Inferences, Personalities, and Behaviors,” is being published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2011-19191-001/
According to Meier, “Taste is something we experience every day. Our research examined whether metaphors that link taste preferences with pro-social experiences (e.g., “she’s a sweetheart”) can be used to shed light on actual personality traits and behavior.”
The research included a series of five studies. In one study, the authors found participants who ate a sweet food (a specific brand of chocolate), versus a non-sweet food (a cracker), or no food, were more likely to volunteer to help another person in need. The authors also found in another study that people believe that a person who likes sweet foods like candy or chocolate cake (compared to foods from the other four taste types) is also more agreeable or helpful, but not more extroverted or neurotic.
“It is striking that helpful and friendly people are considered ‘sweet’ because taste would seem to have little in common with personality or behavior. Yet, recent psychological theories of embodied metaphor led us to hypothesize that seemingly innocuous metaphors can be used to derive novel insights about personality and behavior,” said Dr. Meier. “Importantly, our taste studies controlled for positive mood so the effects we found are not due to the happy or rewarding feeling one may have after eating a sweet food.”
According to Dr. Robinson, “Our results suggest there is a real link between sweet tastes and pro-social behavior. Such findings reveal that metaphors can lead to unique and provocative predictions about people's behaviors and personality traits.”
The authors also showed that people who like sweet foods, versus individuals who do not, were higher in the personality trait of agreeableness and were more likely to volunteer to help clean up their city after it experienced a major flood. In other words, the authors demonstrated people can predict how helpful or nice someone is, based on the extent to which whether he or she prefers eating sweet foods. Preferences for the other four taste types were not predictive of the pro-social trait of agreeableness.
The researchers say that taste metaphors may have different consequences for interpersonal functioning in other cultures. “Although we suggest our results are likely to be found in other cultures, that may not always be the case across all cultures,” said Dr. Meier, who suggests that cross-cultural research of the same type would be informative.