Blowing Out Birthday Candles Makes the Cake Taste Better

Rituals draw people in and help them focus on the present moment, which helps them focus on and enjoy the food that follows

Francesca Cesa Bianchi, Milano

On your special day, the cake emerges, all adorned with lit candles and groups of friends and family (and strangers, if you’re at a restaurant), embarrass you for about 60 seconds as they belt out the well-known tune. You make a silent wish and blow the candles out and the cake is then, at last, served.

Food rituals like this one, it turns out, actually help us to better appreciate the flavor of the edible treats they are dedicated to. Ritualistic behavior, often coupled with anticipation, psychologists found, alter the way we perceive flavors for the better.

Researchers performed several experiments to test this hunch. First, they presented some lucky test subjects with a delicious piece of chocolate. Some of the participants were allowed to simply gobble their chocolate down, while others were asked to first break the bar into two pieces without unwrapping it; then unwrap one half and eat it; and, finally, unwrap and eat the other half. People who undertook this meticulous set of ritual-like instructions reported enjoying their chocolate more than the other group who just greedily ate their chocolate.

In other experiments, the team found that people only enjoy this effect if they perform those tedious rituals themselves (as opposed to watching someone else do it), and that delaying and anticipating the food reward builds up its perceived deliciousness when people finally get their mouths around the object they’re so carefully preparing or honoring. The team concluded that rituals draw people in and help them focus on the present moment, producing something called “intrinsic interest,” which helps them focus on and enjoy the food that follows.

So next time you claim you’re too old or too shy for the birthday song, just grin and bear it. When the cake is finally cut, your taste buds will thank you.

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