It turns out that those self-appointed ‘foodies’ clogging up your Instagram feed with photos of their latest gastronomic feat are more than just annoying – they’re literally ruining your appetite.
Research published last month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests the visual anticipation of that farm-to-table, foie gras-topped bison burger you’re going to eat tonight may not heighten the culinary experience after all – in fact it does the opposite.
“It’s sensory boredom – you’ve kind of moved on”
Scientists at Brigham Young University and the University of Minnesota came to the conclusion that looking at images of a certain type of food, and then subsequently eating it, diminishes the gratification you get from it.
“It’s sensory boredom – you’ve kind of moved on. You don’t want that taste experience anymore,” said study author Ryan Elder.
Elder and two other researchers asked 63 students to rate their liking of 15 different foods – among them things like peanuts, hamburgers, and raisins – on a scale from 0 (I hate this) to 100 (gimme now). This gave the researchers a baseline idea of the participants’ preferences and tastes. The students were then shown pictures of different foods and asked to rate them. When they were done assessing the images, the participants were given three peanuts to eat and asked to rate how much they enjoyed them.
“Simulating food consumption begins the process of satisfaction”
Elder then crunched some numbers to compare the difference in the participants’ anticipated and actual enjoyment of the peanuts with the kind of pictures they were shown. Turns out if you looked at more photos – and specifically, more photos of similarly salty foods – then you were less likely to enjoy eating the peanut by a margin of 14.8 percentage points, which was deemed statistically significant.
But how is this true? Wouldn’t looking at savory foods similar to peanuts get you in the mood for a salty snack? Well, seems not. “Simulating food consumption begins the process of satisfaction,” says Carey Morewedge, a marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University. In other words, you’ve begun to imagine eating it, which to the brain is as good as, if not pretty close to, the real thing. Much like how the fifth bite of a slice of cheesecake is often less satisfying than the first, so too is the first bite when you’ve been looking at pictures and thinking about cheesecakes all day.
So should food lovers stay clear of Instagram altogether? Morewedge says the effect is short lived so it might be a good idea to simply put the phone down as you approach dinnertime. “If you’re going to eat shortly after looking at food pictures, you’re probably going to enjoy that food less. If you’re eating further down the line, then you’ll probably be fine – it resets pretty quickly.”