Monday, November 9, 2015

Sensory Neuroscience, Snackology, and the Market Failure of Food

I don't know if you saw this article in The New Yorker last week about how the sound of a potato chip, the music in a bar, and the color of your coffee mug can seriously alter the flavor of your

If you think I'm exaggerating you should read the article. They recorded sounds of potato chip crunching, and when they amplified those sounds and sharpened them, people rated the chips as fresher and better tasting. Mellifluous organ music changed a creamy ale into a bitter one. When coffee's in a white mug it tastes "nearly twice as intense but only two-thirds as sweet" than when it's in a clear glass one.


1. This is obviously a philosophical topic, leading immediately to questions like "what is taste, anyway?" More specifically, these results press on us the question of whether the perceptual experience itself changes in the presence of other stimuli or whether we just interpret the experience to ourselves differently in the presence of other stimuli.

If the importance of this question isn't immediate to you, consider that it's a specific instance of the more general question: do we perceive a shared pre-existing world or does everyone kind of live in their own reality? It doesn't really get more profound or disturbing.

2. It's long been known that presentation affects experience. This is why people like me are always going around saying things like "HEY PEOPLE: STYLE IS AN ACTUAL THING." I don't know if it's the long arm of the protestant reformation or what, but I feel there is huge resistance to this idea.

For example, I'm always hearing people talk smugly about how they value substance over style, or the importance of not getting distracted by style, like it's some kind of moral superiority if you drive a plain-looking car or you wear only Dockers (see: "On the Self-Satisfaction of the Casually Dressed.")

I use a Mac, and I love my Mac partly because of small details like the way the font smoothing on the "Pages" app looks. It's so good. I could not be more sick of people having opinions about this, like somehow my selection on aesthetic grounds reflects a poor character.

3. The whole idea of an ale that's creamy when there's xylophone music and bitter when there's organ music reminded me of this post on rationality and preferences. There I mention the example of the person who prefers to eat lobster for dinner, but not if they've just seen the lobster swimming in the tank.

These preferences could seem irrational. But as discussed in the post, it doesn't have to -- all you have to do is attribute to a person different preferences depending on whether they've just seen their dinner. Is that artificial and ad hoc? Maybe not. If you're someone who likes bitter ale, and you prefer X ale to Y, but only when the organ music is on -- given this research, that's seems to me like as real a preference as you're going to get.

4. But the most disturbing thing in the article is the same thing that always seems to come up in the early twenty-first century when we talk about science, namely: who wants to know?

Of course the whole point is food technology.  Of course in 2015 you can't do research like this without funding from the same marketers and food technologists that want to use your findings to sell more things. The scientist in the article estimates that 75% of his research is industry-funded. 

That is, the main thing that's going to happen as a result of this research is you can get people to buy more potato chips if you make the sound of the crunch different without having to bother about things like actual freshness.

Let me be clear: if people want to put their soft drinks in red cans because red-means-sweet, what do I care? Knock yourselves out.

But you know it's not going to stop there. You know that it's going to turn into red peppers that sound crunchy but are mushy and stale inside and crap like that, and pretty soon everything will be like the apples arms-race toward redness and away from flavor, and the market failure of food will become even worse, and eventually nutritionists will move beyond saying "to be healthy, just cook food at home!" to "to be healthy, just grow everything yourself from heirloom seeds!"

5. The article says this:

"We are accustomed to thinking of food and its packaging as distinct phenomena, but to a brain seeking flavor they seem to be one and the same."

Welcome to the modern world. Have a good time!

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