Food presents the most interesting gateway to thinking about liking. Unlike music or art, we have a very direct relationship with what we eat: survival. Also, every time you sit down to a meal you have myriad “affective responses,” as psychologists call them.
One day, I join Debra Zellner, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University who studies food liking, for lunch at the Manhattan restaurant Del Posto. “What determines what you’re selecting?” Zellner asks, as I waver between the Heritage Pork Trio with Ribollita alla Casella & Black Cabbage Stew and the Wild Striped Bass with Soft Sunchokes, Wilted Romaine & Warm Occelli Butter.
“What I’m choosing, is that liking? It’s not liking the taste,” Zellner says, “because I don’t have it in my mouth.”
My choice is the memory of all my previous choices—“every eating experience is a learning experience,” as the psychologist Elizabeth Capaldi has written. But there is novelty here too, an anticipatory leap forward, driven in part by the language on the menu. Words such as “warm” and “soft” and “heritage” are not free riders: They are doing work. In his book The Omnivorous Mind, John S. Allen, a neuroanthropologist, notes that simply hearing an onomatopoetic word like “crispy” (which the chef Mario Batali calls “innately appealing”) is “likely to evoke the sense of eating that type of food.” When Zellner and I mull over the choices, calling out what “sounds good,” there is undoubtedly something similar going on.
As I take a sip of wine—a 2004 Antico Broilo, a Friulian red—another element comes into play: How you classify something influences how much you like it. Is it a good wine? Is it a good red wine? Is it a good wine from the refosco grape? Is it a good red wine from Friuli ?
Categorization, says Zellner, works in several ways. Once you have had a really good wine, she says, “you can’t go back. You wind up comparing all these lesser things to it.” And yet, when she interviewed people about their drinking of, and liking for, “gourmet coffee” and “specialty beer” compared with “regular” versions such as Folgers and Budweiser, the “ones who categorized actually like the everyday beer much more than the people who put all beer in the same category,” she says. Their “hedonic contrast” was reduced. In other words, the more they could discriminate what was good about the very good, the more they could enjoy the less good. We do this instinctively—you have undoubtedly said something like “it’s not bad, for airport food.”
There is a kind of tragic irony when it comes to enjoying food: As we eat something, we begin to like it less. From a dizzy peak of anticipatory wanting, we slide into a slow despond of dimming affection, slouching into revulsion (“get this away from me,” you may have said, pushing away a once-loved plate of Atomic Wings).
In the phenomenon known as “sensory specific satiety,” the body in essence sends signals when it has had enough of a certain food. In one study, subjects who’d rated the appeal of several foods were asked about them again after eating one for lunch; this time they rated the food’s pleasantness lower. They were not simply “full,” but their bodies were striving for balance, for novelty. If you have ever had carb-heavy, syrup-drenched pancakes for breakfast, you are not likely to want them again at lunch. It’s why we break meals up into courses: Once you had the mixed greens, you are not going to like or want more mixed greens. But dessert is a different story.
Sated as we are at the end of a meal, we are suddenly faced with a whole new range of sensations. The capacity is so strong it has been dubbed the “dessert effect.” Suddenly there’s a novel, nutritive gustatory sensation—and how could our calorie-seeking brains resist that? As the neuroscientist Gary Wenk notes, “your neurons can only tolerate a total deprivation of sugar for a few minutes before they begin to die.” (Quick, apply chocolate!) As we finish dessert, we may be beginning to get the “post-ingestive” nutritional benefits of our main course. Sure, that chocolate tastes good, but the vegetables may be making you feel so satisfied. In the end, memory blurs it all. A study co-authored by Rozin suggests that the pleasure we remember from a meal has little to do with how much we consumed, or how long we spent doing it (under a phenomenon called “duration neglect”). “A few bites of a favorite dish in a meal,” the researchers write, “may do the full job for memory.”