Ever wonder why we use the word “sweet” when referring to nice people?
In a sense, the answer’s simple: From an evolutionary perspective, taste is incredibly important. It’s what allows us to find good, nutritious food while avoiding, say, Arby’s.
At a young age, we learn that sweet foods are good, bitter foods are bad, and spicy foods can hurt us. Over time, our tastes develop and change, but we still use taste terminology to describe personalities or moods. Sour people aren’t easy to get along with, while sweet people are just fine; bitter folks are no fun, and salty people are even worse.
As it turns out, there may be more to those idioms than you think. Some research suggests that our taste preferences can actually predict certain personality traits. We decided to look at a few of the most succulent studies on the subject—and came up with some pretty delicious revelations.
1. If you like bitter foods, you might be a psychopath.
“The genetic variation in the ability to taste bitter is well-known,” says Linda Bartoshuk, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“Humans have 25 different bitter genes that express receptors that bind to different chemicals. Presumably, this evolved to protect us from poisons. This literature goes back many years. Some of the old papers hint at personality variation across the ability to taste bitter.”
Back in prehistoric times, if you ate something bitter, it was likely poisonous (we wrote about that extensively in our Pulitzer-worthy piece, “This Is Why You Can’t Eat Just Any Leaf”). That’s why humankind eventually developed an aversion to bitterness and why children naturally prefer sweeter foods.
We’ll give you the positive takeaway first: If you’ve developed a taste for bitter foods—which are much less likely to include poison nowadays—you’ve overcome some of your evolutionary instincts. Pretty cool, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news for the bitter-lovers. In 2015, a study published in the journal Appetite: Eating and Drinking suggested correlation between a preference for bitterness and sadism, psychopathy, and narcissism. The researchers performed two studies to determine whether people with bitter taste preferences were antisocial.
“The results of both studies confirmed the hypothesis that bitter taste preferences are positively associated with malevolent personality traits,” the authors wrote, “with the most robust relation to everyday sadism and psychopathy.”
Of course, the research relied on self-reporting, so a more accurate conclusion might be that people who admit to loving bitter foods are more likely to be antisocial. That’s a small distinction, but an important one; if a scientist called us and asked whether we loved arugula and torturing houseflies, we might be compelled to say “no” and hang up.
The authors noted that issue and called for more research, writing, “There may be more factors on the food-related side that relate to the development of an antisocial personality.” Hey, we’re certainly in favor of more research; if eating radishes makes you Machiavellian, we certainly want to know about it.
In any case, if you’ve got a friend who loves sucking on lemons and arugula, we’d keep a close eye on them.
2. If you’re especially sensitive to taste, you might be a more emotional person overall.
Supertasters—people who taste more intensely than the average person—are out there, and by some estimates, there are quite a few of them. Per an article in Scientific American, about 25 to 30 percent of people are thought to be supertasters, while 40 to 50 percent are average tasters, and 25 to 30 percent are non-tasters—people who taste less intensely than the average person.
If you’re a supertaster, you’ll enjoy pleasant foods more thoroughly than your average-tasting brethren. You’ll also intensely dislike bad-tasting foods, particularly if they’re bitter, and you might feel overwhelmed when eating particularly nasty meals (we’re thinkin’ Arby’s). Oh, and you’ll probably cry when watching sad movies, too.
In one 2007 study, researchers showed participants three video clips, two of which were intended to incite a negative emotional response. One clip was chosen to bring on anger (we’re assuming it was the first five minutes of Carrot Top’s 1998 romantic comedy, Chairman of the Board), while the other was chosen to bring on sadness (we’re assuming it was the remaining 90 minutes of the same movie). The third clip was completely neutral, probably consisting of a few Angela Lansbury workout videos.
Incredibly, the supertasters were more likely to experience an intense emotional response than the control group. The authors noted that the correlations couldn’t be attributed to gender or personality measures, so the conclusion seems clear: If you have sensitive taste buds, you’re a more emotionally sensitive person, too.
3. If you like spicy foods, you might seek out other risky activities.
Go on YouTube and you’ll find a whole genre of “guy eats a spicy pepper and then tries to do something” videos. Our favorite is this clip of the Herning Boys Choir eating chilis midway through a performance of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
There are hundreds of these clips. You can find people eating ultra-hot foods on worksites, chowing down on ghost peppers while playing video games, and even a guy scarfing down 22 red-hot Carolina Reapers in under a minute. That’s the only one we’re linking, by the way, because it’s the only one without profanity, and our advertisers aren’t too keen on spicy language.
If downing over a dozen things with “reaper” in their name seems like risky behavior, well, you’re not wrong. In 2016, a pair of studies published in the journal Judgement and Decision Making found that a preference for spicy foods is associated with risk-taking.
Why? The study’s authors posited “benign masochism” as a possible explanation. Benign Masochism, by the way, is also our new band name.
“Benign masochism refers to the enjoyment derived from negative experiences that we initially perceive as threatening,” the authors wrote. It’s the same reason we love scary movies and roller coasters: We like to feel threatened, but we know that the pepper doesn’t really pose any significant danger (then again, try telling that to anyone who’s tried to eat a Carolina Reaper).
The authors also believe that the effect is cross-cultural. In other words, whether you live in Shanghai or New York City, if you love spicy foods, you’re probably up for riding a roller coaster while gambling your life savings on a dog race and playing six straight rounds of Russian roulette.
Then again, maybe you just like having a tingly mouth.
4. If you eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, you’re more likely to be a conscientious person.
We should note that in the world of psychology, the word “conscientiousness” is a precise term and one of the Big Five personality traits used to evaluate individuals. Conscientious people are generally more empathetic to others, and they’re more likely to live longer than their peers, perhaps because they’re better at setting long-term goals and maintaining their health.
Given all of that, it’s not much of a surprise that fruit and vegetable lovers tend to be conscientious people, per a 2016 study published in the journal Psychology, Health, & Medicine. The opposite is also true—if you hate fruits and veggies, you’re probably more impulsive and less empathetic than your broccoli-chomping peers.
“Low levels of conscientiousness were found to be associated with lower fruit and vegetable intentions, with the latter also associated with fruit and vegetable consumption,” the authors wrote in the paper’s abstract.
Don’t worry; if you avoid the fruit plate in favor of dessert, we’ve got some good news for you.
5. If you like sweet foods, you’re more likely to be sweet.
Yes, your sweetheart is aptly named. A series of studies from North Dakota State University showed that people were more likely to volunteer to perform selfless acts after eating sweet foods. Those participants were also more likely to be agreeable (pleasant), although they weren’t necessarily more extroverted.
“It is striking that helpful and friendly people are considered ‘sweet,’ because taste would seem to have little in common with personality or behavior,” study author Brian Meier, PhD, said in a 2011 press release quoted by Science Daily. “… Importantly, our taste studies controlled for positive mood, so the effects we found are not due to the happy or rewarding feeling one may have after eating a sweet food.”
We couldn’t find how the researchers controlled for positive moods, so we’re just going to assume they forced the participants to watch Chairman of the Board.
By the way, the researchers decided to pursue the studies after thinking about the food-related metaphors we use to describe each other.
“Our results suggest there is a real link between sweet tastes and pro-social behavior,” said professor of psychology Michael D. Robinson, one of the study’s other authors. “Such findings reveal that metaphors can lead to unique and provocative predictions about people’s behaviors and personality traits.”
Okay, we’ve come to the end. We’ve held off long enough. We have to say it. You are what you eat.