Sunday, January 10, 2016

Nudging the taste-buds with audio-visual and other perceptions

Nicola Twilley has this profile of the work of experimental psychologist Charles Spence who studies how sensory responses influence our assessments of physical products. In particular, his studies have shown that apart from conventional olfactory sensibilities, various audio-visual perceptions play an important role in perceptions about the quality and taste of food products. These insights from neuroscience carry great relevance for packaging of food products,
His results show that the Pringles that made a louder, higher-pitched crunch were perceived to be a full fifteen per cent fresher than the softer-sounding chips. The experiment was the first to successfully demonstrate that food could be made to taste different through the addition or subtraction of sound alone... Afterward, Spence’s lab began studying the crunch of apples, the fizz of carbonated water, and the rustle of potato-chip bags... Spence has found that a strawberry-flavored mousse tastes ten per cent sweeter when served from a white container rather than a black one; that coffee tastes nearly twice as intense but only two-thirds as sweet when it is drunk from a white mug rather than a clear glass one; that adding two and a half ounces to the weight of a plastic yogurt container makes the yogurt seem about twenty-five per cent more filling, and that bittersweet toffee tastes ten per cent more bitter if it is eaten while you’re listening to low-pitched music... a cookie seems harder and crunchier when served from a surface that has been sandpapered to a rough finish, and that Colombian and British shoppers are twice as willing to choose a juice whose label features a concave, smile-like line rather than a convex, frown-like one.
Some of these insights have applications far and wide, like increasing the appetite of old-aged people,
He noted that... the elderly, when eating tomato soup, must add more than twice as much salt as a young person does in order to achieve the same taste. Why not mitigate that increased salt consumption, and its attendant health hazards, by presenting the soup in a blue container, a color that Spence has shown can make food seem significantly saltier? Similarly, experts estimate that sixty per cent of eighty-year-olds have an impaired sense of smell, sharply reducing their enjoyment—and thus, often, their intake—of food... Spence found that when people were served a scoop of bacon-and-egg ice cream accompanied by the sound of sizzling bacon they described the taste of the ice cream as much more “bacony” than subjects whose consumption was accompanied by the clucking of chickens. This insight—that the appropriate soundtrack can intensify the flavor of a food—inspired Blumenthal’s iconic “Sound of the Sea” dish, for which diners at his restaurant, the Fat Duck, in Bray, are presented with an iPod loaded with a recording of crashing waves and screeching gulls to listen to while enjoying an artfully presented plate of seafood. The effect could be used similarly, Spence said, to design soundtracks that replace some of the lost flavor of food for the elderly.
His research findings go beyond food,
In 2006, with funding from Unilever, Spence conducted a study to see whether altering the volume and pitch of the sound from an aerosol can would affect how a person perceives the pleasantness or forcefulness of a deodorant. Based on Spence’s findings, the company invested in a packaging redesign for Axe deodorant, complete with new nozzle technology. The underarm spray, which is targeted at young men, now sounds noticeably louder than the company’s gentler, female-targeted Dove brand... sounds originating from behind a driver’s head will direct attention forward more quickly than sounds that come from the side—has found its way to market with the introduction of headrest-mounted speakers in 2015 Volvo FH trucks.
Apart from their commercial utility, behavioral framing like Spence's and this generate significant social externalities. They are important last-mile gap bridging measures, which are often the difference between success and failure of large public policy interventions. But these are far from low hanging fruits and require huge amount of carefully constructed, and possibly expensive, research, which unlike commercial beneficiaries, public stakeholders have limited incentive to pursue. In this context, dedicated behavioural units, like those in the UK and US, assume significance.

The risk with such sensory manipulation is, as the author identifies, its potential for "sensorial enrichment and nutritional impoverishment", whereby products are shaped to maximize sales and profits at the expense of health and well-being. Given the skewed information and cognitive balance between sellers and consumers, it is most likely that its effects end up being not so benign, even socially harmful, more so for the poorest.  

1 comment:

Unknown said...

All this and we still think that we are in control of the choices we make on consumption and on much else. So much for human rationality.