Rituals Make Food (and Drinks) Taste Better

From blowing out birthday candles to popping the cork off a wine bottle, symbolic gestures enhance our enjoyment

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One night as she was enjoying an evening with friends, professor Kathleen Vohs, who teaches marketing at the University of Minnesota, was disappointed to find that the bottle of wine she had bought earlier came with a screw top, not a cork. “I missed the whole ritual of unwrapping the foil and inserting the corkscrew, and feeling that tension,” she says. “It has so many dimensions because I can feel the foil, but everyone else can hear the pop — you know that very satisfying pop.” Because the wine bottle was missing that pop, Vohs and her company agreed that the wine probably wouldn’t be as flavorful.

Vohs proved that suspicion correct in a study published July 17 in the journal Psychological Science. According to the study, which she co-authored with two other professors, the little rituals we perform before eating make the actual noshing more enjoyable. Eating is a heavily ritualized activity, marked by symbolic activities like blowing out candles before cutting into a birthday cake, separating Oreo halves and licking off the cream, or blessing food before a meal. The researchers say that rituals increase people’s interest and involvement in the experience of eating, which makes it more pleasurable.

(MORE: Plated Palates: How Cutlery Influences Food Flavor)

The researchers asked one group of participants to eat a chocolate bar by integrating ritual: they broke up a chocolate bar before unwrapping it, unwrapped one half and ate it, then unwrapped and ate the other half. The minor ritual had significant effects. Compared to those who were just advised to eat the chocolate bar, the participants who ritualized their chocolate consumption reported higher levels of enjoyment, flavor, and value.

Another experiment found that the rituals must be performed by the consumer to enhance the experiment — merely watching someone else stir your lemonade isn’t the same as stirring it yourself.

Though these findings may seem limited, the effect of rituals extends beyond just enjoying food more. The study might have implications for dieters if the rituals that enhance consumption also lead to less over-eating, says Vohs. And since these activities make even neutral activities more enjoyable, the researchers say that rituals might help motivate people to perform healthy behaviors, like safe sex or healthy eating. According to a press release, Vohs says they are even looking into the possibility that rituals before operations might ease post-operative pain.

Until then, at least we know one thing: you and your guests will both be happier if you make sure your wine has a cork, not a screwtop. Science says so.

MORE: Yes, Chocolate Tastes Better When You’re Dieting