The rituals you perform before eating -- even the seemingly unimportant ones -- can improve the taste of food, according to a new study.
Some rituals are obvious, such as making a wish while blowing out the candles on a birthday cake and the ceremonial cutting of the cake. But others are more subtle.
In this study, researchers told some volunteers to eat a piece of chocolate after they followed a detailed set of instructions: "Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it."
Another group of volunteers were simply told to relax for a short amount of time and then eat the chocolate bar in whatever way they liked.
The participants who performed the ritual rated the chocolate more highly, savored it more and were willing to pay more for the chocolate than the other group. The findings suggest that a short, artificial ritual can have real effects on taste, according to the study published in the July 17 online edition of the journal Psychological Science.
A second experiment found that a longer delay between a ritual and eating led people to believe that carrots tasted better. Other experiments showed that people need to be involved in the ritual for it to affect taste. Watching someone else perform the ritual had no impact.
While rituals are common before mealtimes, they could play a role in other, more important situations, the researchers noted.
"We are thinking of getting patients to perform rituals before a surgery and then measuring their pain postoperatively and how fast they heal," study author Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist at the University of Minnesota, said in a journal news release.