consumer psychology

The Psychological Case Against Tasty, Tasty Appetizers

Crostini with Garlic and Tomato on White
Photo: the food passionate/Corbis

There’s a lot to think about when you go out to eat. Bottled or tap? Red or white? How are we splitting this check? One thing you likely aren’t thinking about, however, is how, when your food eventually comes, your brain will decide whether it’s good or not. After all, it doesn’t seem like something that takes a lot of thought — food either tastes good or it doesn’t, right?

That’s a question that’s had scientists’ attention for some time now. And a fair amount of research has suggested that there’s a lot more to how food tastes than … well, how food tastes. All sorts of contextual factors, from the price of that wine to the setting for your meal to how the food is arranged on your plate, play a role in whether or not you think something tastes good. When you say that a dish is delicious, in other words, it’s partly your taste buds talking, but there are plenty of other voices making themselves heard as well.

One major, largely unexplored factor is the question of whether what you’ve already eaten affects your perception of what you’re eating at the moment. A study in Food Quality & Preference, released Thursday, sought to answer that question.

Dr. Jacob Lahne of Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sports Management wanted to see how having a mediocre entree after a mediocre appetizer would compare to having the exact same entree after a significantly better version of that same appetizer. To do so, he and Dr. Debra Zellner, a psychologist at Montclair State University, had a group of 64 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 63 eat one of two meals in which an appetizer of bruschetta was followed by an entree of pasta with garlic and oil.

The way everything tasted was manipulated in advance: in preliminary work, Lahne and Zellner developed one recipe for bruschetta that tasters declared to be delicious, and another that wasn’t rated nearly so highly. The entree dish used in the experiment was always (purposefully) meh — again, as rated by tasters beforehand.

For the experiment itself, conducted at Drexel’s culinary school, half the participants ate the great bruschetta followed by the pasta, while the other half ate the mediocre bruschetta followed by the pasta. Then everyone rated their meals.

The findings were conclusive: The people who ate the “good” bruschetta before the pasta dish enjoyed the pasta significantly less than those who started with the mediocre bruschetta. In fact, those who had the good appetizer actively disliked, on average, the pasta that followed, while the mediocre bruschetta group gave the pasta a positive overall review (both dishes were rated on a scale from 100 to -100).

Lahne and his team say this is due to a phenomenon called “hedonic contrast,” where the hedonic value, or pleasure, gained from something is significantly impacted by how it compares to other, similar stimuli. That is, your brain determines how much you like a dish by how it compares to other ones you’ve had lately — like, for instance, that appetizer from ten minutes ago.

The researchers note that this finding has some pretty clear implications in an appetizer-loving culture like ours: “Given that Western – and particularly American – meal structures commonly involve appetizers that are meant to pique the appetite as ‘overtures’ to the main course,” they write, “this result is important: too much difference in quality – too much piquing – can lead to reduced enjoyment of the main course.”

It’s worth keeping in mind the next time your friend wants to share a jumbo plate of nachos before your burger comes. Don’t let your appetizer write a check your entree can’t cash.

The Psychological Case Against Tasty Appetizers