Science has once again stepped up to the plate, in a manner of speaking. A new study says that singing “Happy Birthday” actually makes cake taste better.
The study, published in the upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, finds that the ritual of singing before eating a slice of cake, or any other dessert, increases one's appreciation of the treat. The result is that the food ends up tasting better, at least in our minds.
The “Happy Birthday to You” song hasn’t even been around for 100 years, though the Guinness World Records does call it the most recognizable song in the English language. So, is it the song itself or the ritual?
University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs found that this ritual even extends beyond singing to include such practices as how one opens a candy bar wrapper.
Do you have any personal routines when it comes to eating your food? For example, do you treat yourself to a doughnut on Friday mornings at work? Vohs found that personalized eating habits like this, carried out in “repeated, episodic and fixed behaviors” result in us enjoying that doughnut all the more because of the anticipation built up in our minds.
“Whenever I order an espresso, I take a sugar packet and shake it, open the packet and pour a teeny bit of sugar in, and then taste,” Vohs told the Daily Mail. “It's never enough sugar, so I then pour about half of the packet in. The thing is, this isn't a functional ritual, I should just skip right to pouring in half the packet.”
In other words, her own personalized consumption habit is an integral part of her enjoyment of that espresso.
But there’s good news as well for those watching their waistlines: The ritualistic satisfaction can be applied to any food, including healthier options like fruits and vegetables.
In the experiments, Vohs asked control groups to eat chocolate bars in two different manners. The first group was told to methodically eat half of the bar, wait for a set period of time, then unwrap and eat the other half. Those in the second group of testers were allowed to randomly eat the chocolate bar however they preferred. Vohs found that the first control group reported a higher satisfaction level and were even willing to pay more money for the chocolate bars.
Her second significant finding was that this ritualistic enjoyment applied only to our own personal behaviors. Meaning that Vohs wouldn’t likely get any enjoyment out of watching someone else incrementally add sugar to her espresso. In fact, she might find the process frustrating, since the logical part of her brain knows that she simply wants more sugar added.
This isn't Vohs' first interesting study. In 2010, she was involved in a study that found that handling money actually helps reduce pain.
Going forward, Vohs said she would next like to try applying the rituals to other habits outside of food. “We are thinking of getting patients to perform rituals before a surgery and then measuring their pain post-operatively and how fast they heal,” she said.