When you go the supermarket, you’ll likely notice some differences in how various brands of meat are packaged. Some will tout their “humane” or “cage-free” origin, while others are silent on the subject of how the animal in question was treated.
People who buy more humanely raised meat obviously do so for moral reasons. But there’s more going on with these labels than the objective information they convey. A long line of research suggests that the way we taste food and drink is affected by all sorts of factors that aren’t tied directly to its taste — it may be that just thinking meat came from a more humane source causes it to taste better than it would have otherwise, at least for some people.
It’s an intriguing idea, and the researchers Eric Anderson of Tufts University and Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University investigated it for a new paper just published in PLOS One. “Our goal was to test whether beliefs about how animals were raised (whether they suffered) would influence the experience of eating meat,” the researchers write. In asking this question, they were drawing on a bunch of prior research showing that, among other, similar findings, “Wine tastes better when people believe it was expensive, compared to when they believe it is inexpensive — even when the two wine samples are actually identical.” Our perception of what we’re consuming goes a great deal toward shaping the sensations that follow, in other words.
The researchers conducted four studies in which they had college students try little samples of meat (jerky and roast beef) that had different labels or descriptions affixed to them. Sometimes, it was meat from a humane source, sometimes it was factory farmed, and sometimes, in the control conditions, more neutral information was provided. In reality, it was always the same meat, allowing researchers to check for statistically significant differences in how the “different” meats were rated by the students who consumed them, as well as how much they’d be willing to pay to buy the meats in question.
Anderson and Barrett did find some differences, though they varied from study to study. For example:
One pattern that emerged in the studies with a control condition was that the students often didn’t differentiate between the control and humane conditions, but appeared to give meat a “penalty,” in terms of smell, taste, and “pleasantness,” after they were told it came from a factory farm.
Summing up their findings, the researchers write:
We found that affective beliefs about animal welfare influence the experience of eating meat, but this effect likely extends to any strong affective belief (such as other moral violations like purity or hierarchy norms) … Additionally, these effects almost certainly extend beyond meat to other food, and even other experiences: knowing that an artist committed a crime might change the experience of their art. These findings suggest that anyone interested in creating an experience (e.g. film-makers, designers, chefs) should consider how beliefs influence the user experience. Broadly, this work suggests top-down influences (such as affective beliefs) play an important role in shaping experience. Experience is not determined solely by physical properties of the external world—experience is also shaped by beliefs.
In other words, there isn’t really such a thing as “objective” perception of the world. What we take in is always colored — or flavored — by our beliefs, even if the effect is sometimes subtle.