Social psychologists often seem like killjoys when it comes to studying how people eat. A primary concern is overeating, so their main objective is frequently to try to identify the psychological levers that can be pulled to help people to eat less. This research has produced a number of pieces of now-familiar advice: Don’t eat while watching television (you lose track of how much you’ve consumed); serve food on small plates with small utensils to create the illusion of plenty.
These days, however, food is a fetish, and some social psychologists have joined the fun. Instead of concentrating solely on how to limit intake, they’ve come up with a range of strategies intended to help people get more enjoyment out of their food. I was interested in learning more about how to make a weekday dinner a more pleasurable experience, so I called Carey Morewedge, a social psychologist at Boston University who studies the hedonics, or pleasure dimensions, of experiences like eating, watching television, and going on vacation.
Morewedge said that when it comes to enjoying food more, there are two impulses we need to figure out how to short-circuit. The first is “habituation,” which has to do with the way we get tired of even our favorite foods if we eat them too often, and the second is “satiation,” which leads us to enjoy a given food less and less over the course of a serving. “If I track my average enjoyment of each chip, if it eat five my average is going to be much higher than if I eat fifteen,” Morewedge says. With that in mind, Morewedge offers these “tips” for enjoying food more:
1. Mentally differentiate food into narrower categories. One study showed that when people eat “jellybeans,” they satiate faster, and enjoy each bite less, than if they consider the candy in more discrete categories, like “strawberry” and “grape” jellybeans. Similarly, you can get more pleasure out of a game day spread by taking a moment to differentiate a table of snacks: pretzels, tortilla chips, popcorn.
2. Recall all the different foods you’ve eaten in previous meals before you start a meal. If you’re having leftovers for dinner, you’ll enjoy them more if you reset your habituation by first thinking about all the foods you’ve eaten between the previous night’s dinner and the current one.
3. Eat multiple kinds of food in a single sitting. The small plates craze is not so crazy: There’s less overall pleasure in a single 1000-calorie burrito than there is in cycling between a number of different dishes. Similarly, there are hedonic gains to be had in ordering different meals and swapping plates with a companion halfway through.
These tactics work well with lots of different hedonic experiences. They’re an argument against, for example, binge-watching television shows, because we enjoy the 12th consecutive episode far less than the first, and an argument for not fast-forwarding through commercials, because commercials help to reset satiety. Not all hedonic experiences decline over time, however. As Morewedge notes, with sex, “arousal increases as the activity goes on.”
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at email@example.com.