The influence of experience and personality on the perception, liking, and intake of spicy foods

Open Access
Byrnes, Nadia K
Graduate Program:
Food Science
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 30, 2014
Committee Members:
  • John E Hayes, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • John E Hayes, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Kathleen Loralee Keller, Committee Member
  • Joshua D Lambert, Committee Member
  • Stephen Jeffrey Wilson, Committee Member
  • experts
  • chemesthesis
  • sorting
  • perceptual mapping
  • individual differences
  • sensation seeking
  • sensitivity to punishment
  • mBART
Chemesthetic sensations, such as the burning/stinging sensation elicited by capsaicin, the pungent compound in chili peppers, can be very polarizing. While these sensations can act a deterrent to consuming spicy foods for some individuals, for others, these compounds are immensely enjoyable and a key driver in their liking of certain foods. This dissertation explored the variables that influence perception of these compounds as well as the variables that influence liking and ultimately intake of spicy foods. First, we developed a free sorting technique with appropriate methodological considerations so that we could use this method to explore perception of chemesthetic compounds. Utilizing this method, we showed that training, whether through a formal culinary program (Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY) or through informal experiential learning, significantly influences the perception of chemesthetic compounds. While the sorting of these stimuli follows a biological basis for the most part, experiential learning and formal training altered the way that participants use language to describe these stimuli. Experts and naïve assessors with high scores on the Food Involvement Scale (FIS) showed more lexical richness surrounding these sensations, using significantly more descriptors to describe the sensations that they perceived. However, individuals in these cohorts tended to use these words more idiosyncratically than the naïve assessors that had low FIS scores. Only formal training however significantly influenced the way that study participants conducted to the sorting task. The expert assessors generated perceptual map configurations that were significantly different from both the cohort of naïve assessors with high Food Involvement scores and the cohort of naïve assessors with low Food Involvement scores, reflecting a possible shift in the perception of these sensations or a shift in the way the assessors with formal training attended to the sorting task. The second portion of this dissertation focuses on the variables that influence liking and intake of spicy foods. Chapter four shows strong empirical evidence for the relationships between personality and liking of spicy foods that were previously hypothesized by Rozin and colleagues. While there was no measurable effect of desensitization in this study, individuals with high scores on Arnett’s Inventory of Sensation Seeking and the Sensitivity to Reward subscale of the Sensitivity to Punishment and Sensitivity to Reward Questionnaire showed higher liking of spicy foods than individuals with low scores on either of these personality measures. Extending on these findings, chapter five explores the nature of these relationships in a superset of individuals using moderation models. We observed limited moderation by personality on both the relationship between perceived burning/stinging intensity of a sampled capsaicin stimulus and the liking of spicy foods and the relationship between liking and intake of spicy foods. However, we did observe differences between men and women that suggest that there may be divergent mechanisms driving the intake of spicy foods in men and women. In women, the personality trait Sensation Seeking showed stronger effects on liking and intake of spicy foods, possibly reflecting a stronger biological reward and motivation for women. In men, Sensitivity to Reward showed stronger effects on liking and intake of spicy foods, suggesting that the social rewards may be more salient to drive the consumption of spicy foods in men. In chapter six we utilized a range of different personality measures to explore the possible divergent mechanism between Sensation Seeking and Sensitivity to Reward. A number of related personality constructs, including sensation seeking, impulsivity, and reward sensitivity, associate with behaviors that have been hypothetically linked with the enjoyment of eating spicy foods such as gambling, risky sexual behavior, and risky driving practices. While these personality traits are related, they are each multidimensional traits that associate with these behaviors to different extents. We employed a range of personality measures, both self-report and behavioral measures, to explore the relationships between personality and liking of spicy foods in a larger context. We observed that Sensation Seeking and Sensitivity to Reward show significant associations with the intake of spicy foods but only Sensation Seeking shows significant associations with measures of liking of sampled and remembered spicy foods. We suggest that these two personality constructs, while related, tap different dimensions of spicy food intake. Based on these data, we propose that Sensation Seeking may act through liking of spicy foods in influence intake of spicy foods, possibly reflecting a biological or intrinsic motivation for consuming spicy foods while Sensitivity to Reward acts through different mechanisms, possibly reflecting more of an extrinsic motivation for the intake of spicy foods.