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It’s snack time… do you know where your craving is? You’ve got the options of an orange, spicy potato chips, or a bag of pretzels—and instead you opt to go down the street to buy a candy bar. Why is that? If you made an extra effort just to get that sugar intake; maybe it’s time you recognize your sweet tooth.
Listen, it doesn’t have to be a problem! Many people complain about their sweet tooth, saying it’s what makes it difficult for them to stay healthy. However, sometimes a sugar craving can simply mean your body just isn’t getting enough sugar—we need that sugary fuel to keep our energy levels up and working throughout the day (in moderation, of course).
Yet a sweet tooth can also mean so much more.
BTRtoday speaks with Dr. Michael Robinson, professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. Dr. Robinson studied conceptual metaphor theory, concentrating on the sweet taste metaphor. That’s when you call someone a sweetie pie, or some sort of agreeable adjective referencing the word/taste “sweet.” He explains that metaphors like these play important roles in our lives.
Ever wonder why you call someone sweet when they’re being kind? It couldn’t have just been some word someone threw in a casual sentence one day. We’ve been using this adjective for decades referencing the same thing—that someone is a good person. There must be some hard science to back the reasoning for why this descriptive word is used again and again to ascribe taste and personality!
Dr. Robinson’s studies reinforced this. Joined by a team of fellow scientists (Meier, Moeller, Riemer-Peltz, & Robinson, 2012), Robinson believed that people who are considered “sweet,” or often referred to as “sweetie” or “sweetheart,” actually have a preference for sweet tasting foods. Dr. Robinson tells BTRtoday that there is also strong evidence proving that this theory works for other flavors—people who prefer spicy foods tend to be more outgoing and charismatic, while people who preferred sour tastes tend to have a bitter outlook on life.
Dr. Christina Sagioglou, Social Psychologist and post-doctoral researcher at Innsbruck University agrees with Dr. Robinson. “There are quite a few studies that found correlations and causal relationships between various taste preferences and psychological variables,” she explains. “Our own research shows that drinking bitter drinks increases interpersonal hostility, and that bitter taste preferences are related to everyday sadism and sub-clinical psychopathy.”
By using questionnaires, Dr. Robinson found a systematic correlation. “The personality trait of agreeableness correlated with liking for sweet foods, but not other foods,” Dr. Robinson says about the results. “Also, when you learn that someone else likes a sweet food, you infer that he or she is higher in agreeableness.”
Which means that not only will someone who has a sweet tooth likely turn out to be an agreeable person, but also if you happen to learn someone has a sweet tooth prior to meeting them, you’re more likely to automatically think they’re a good person. “People who gain more reward from sweet food may gain more reward from social interactions as well,” Dr. Robinson confers.
He adds that four other studies were performed that also complimented the hypothesis, including a correlation demonstrating that people who prefer to eat sweet foods are more apt to volunteerism. Dr. Sagioglou agrees that these findings suggest that tasting something sweet can make one act more “pro-socially.” However, there has not yet been a test of the causal effect that behaving nicely may have on sweet taste preferences, according to Sagioglou.
In “Sweet Taste Preferences and Experiences Predict Pro-Social Inferences, Personalities, and Behaviors,” Dr. Robinson’s co-published work on the findings for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, an excerpt reads, “the results reveal that an embodied metaphor approach provides a complementary, but unique perspective to traditional trait views of personality.”
The published work also brings attention to the fact that until recently, such ideas were largely based solely on a linguistic viewpoint, and not from a psychological approach. The recent studies have concluded that robust linguistic metaphors are actually able to alter behaviors and thoughts in a metaphor-consistent direction.
Dr. Sagioglou admits that some researchers agree with this, arguing that metaphors cause such connections to arise, however there are other researchers who disagree. “We do not yet fully understand how the relationship between taste preferences and personality develops,” she confesses.
In “Sweet Taste Preferences and Experiences Predict Pro-Social Inferences, Personalities, and Behaviors,” they give the example of Meier and Robinson’s findings from 2004 about the human process of reading negative versus positive words.
In this study they found that people evaluated words faster depending on the type of word and where they were presented on the computer screen. For example, negative words were processed quicker when presented on the lower half of the screen, where positive words were processed quicker when presented on the upper half. This aided to the reasoning behind why we use the metaphor, “I’m feeling down” for a negative feeling, and the metaphor “I’m feeling up” for a positive mood.
They also reference their findings on why we say we’re “heated” or “boiling” when we’re angry. They found that ambiguous faces were thought to be angrier when superimposed on a background suggestive of heat versus non-heat, consistent with anger– heat experiences and metaphors (Anderson & DeLisi, in press).
These findings reflect a linguistic approach to why people with a sweet tooth tend to be referred to as “sweet” and agreeable.
So, next time someone is being a sweetie pie to you, ask if they have a sweet tooth. The answer is probably going to be yes. Or, better yet, if someone is being a bitter person towards you, swat that lemon out of his or her hand and give them some sugar to sweeten them up!