When Psychologists Tackle Chocolate

All psychology conferences would benefit from an infusion of chocolate. The Eastern Psychological Association session didn’t just provide any chocolate, nor was it gratuitous; we had Hudson Chocolates, and we were participating in one of the very taste tests we would hear about as our hosts shared their research into the study of taste. Clearly they knew better than to talk to us about the taste of chocolate confections without providing a sample.

These pastry chefs were interested in all of the aspects of our sensory perception that go into our taste, with the idea that perception follows attention and that aesthetics are a part of flavor (as is pain, in the case of chili peppers). They investigate how the amount of air in a “chocolate chantilly” will lead people to eat more or less, and how the texture of different components will lead people to report liking a treat more or less. I was particularly struck by the statement that “eating is the most intimate interaction we can have with our environment”, which is something I had never thought before that seemed blindingly true the moment I heard it. I was also thrilled to learn that there is an official name, “sensory incongruity”, for the blend of hot and cold I like in my desserts (although they were talking about drinks at the time).

Not that the seminar was all chocolate, because pastry chefs do so much more than chocolate. The kitchen took on the question of whether eggs from traditional factories, from organic farms, and from traditional small farms make a difference to the taste of a cream puff. There turns out to be not much difference in taste from factor to large-scale organic farm, but the puffs made with small-farm eggs did taste better. You could tell there were scientists in the audience, of course, as they interrupted to ask so many detailed questions about consistency in pasteurization, flavoring, and freshness.

But back to chocolate…our chocolates were “palet d’or” (a simple chocolate ganache), “white miso” (yes, as in the soup, with a milk chocolate ganache; I got to pat myself on the back for making a comparison to caramel that the chocolatier later did as well), and a white chocolate with candied black olive. We ranked our liking of the treats, and estimated the innovation, cost, and calories for each one, and contributed our data to their study of whether numbers (which we saw), fancy names (like “chocolate dream” or “japanese paradise”), or lists of ingredients will change people’s perception. I did my best to warn them that I don’t like white chocolate (not because I dislike the idea of candied olives in my chocolate), and to express the deliciousness of the other chocolates.

I suppose I should be sad to say that the “plain” chocolate ganache was my favorite….I guess I’m a traditionalist at heart. Although I was considering a change of research focus so I could have an excuse to combine patisserie with psychology more often. I’ll just have to settle for creating a perception lesson my students are going to love.

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