Sweet-toothed and sweet natured - how people who like sweet things are sweet

"Honey", "Sweetheart", "Sugar": how come so many terms of endearment pertain to sweetness? Might the metaphor be grounded in a real link between sweet taste and pleasing personality traits and behaviour?

Brian Meier and his team had dozens of students rate the agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism of 100 people, based on pictures of their faces and a strap-line identifying each person's preference for a particular food, such as "I like grapefruit". People who said they liked a sweet food were judged by the students as more agreeable, suggesting that we implicitly recognise that a taste for sweet things is grounded in a sweet personality.

Are people right to make this implicit assumption? Further studies suggested so. Students who rated their own personality as more agreeable also tended to have a stronger preference (than their less agreeable peers) for sweet foods and drinks. Among a different set of students, a stronger preference for sweet foods correlated positively with their willingness to volunteer their time, unpaid, for a separate unrelated study - considered by the researchers as a sign of prosocial behaviour.

So, we assume that people who like sweet foods are nice people, and it turns out they are. Can this link be exploited? What if you give someone a sweet food to eat - will they feel more agreeable? Will they actually become more helpful? In two further studies, students given chocolate to eat (either a Hershey's Kiss or a piece of Dove Silky Smooth chocolate), rated themselves as more agreeable and actually volunteered more of their time to help an unknown researcher, as compared with students given a sour sweet or a water cracker.

"We are unaware of any studies showing that taste metaphors are consequential in predicting social functioning, and thus the findings are unique," the researchers said. Why is there this link between sweet taste and personality and behaviour? Meier and his team think one possible root cause may lie in breast-feeding. "... [H]uman breast milk is decidedly sweet in taste and chemical composition and feeding episodes are marked by a close bond of mother and child," they observed. "Thus, one of the earliest bases for later emotional attachments is also marked by a sweet-tasting ingested food."

The psychologists added that future research is needed to explore other potential links between tastes and personality. Might lovers of spicy foods have spicy personalities, for instance? Also, we need to find out if the same links pertain in languages other than English. "The general point is that taste-related metaphors may be useful in understanding other personality processes than those examined," they said.

Meanwhile, if wind of these results gets out, romantic liaisons could become a little more complicated. Has your partner given you that box of chocolates to make you "sweet", literally because they're after something and want you to be more amenable? On the other hand: maybe it's a test. If you turn your nose up at a chocolate, what will that tell them about your personality?

ResearchBlogging.orgMeier, B., Moeller, S., Riemer-Peltz, M., and Robinson, M. (2011). Sweet taste preferences and experiences predict prosocial inferences, personalities, and behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0025253

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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