More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
But Sweetie, You Love Lima Beans
August 31, 2004
By Benedict Carey, New York Times

If only that very first bite of asparagus had inspired delight, and the first taste of jelly doughnut caused a stomachache. If children's happiest food memories were baked and not fried, leafy green rather than beefy, think of the difference in what people might eat.

Now, think of what it might mean to change those memories - as an adult. Psychologists in California and Washington were studying false memories when they stumbled on a surprisingly easy target for manipulation: foods. In a study accepted for publication in the journal Social Cognition, the researchers describe how they fooled college students into thinking that as children they had become sick when eating certain foods.

The students answered questions about their early eating memories. A week later, they were presented with a bogus food history profile that embedded a single falsehood - that they had gotten sick when eating pickles or hard-boiled eggs - among real memories.

"This is called the false feedback technique, where you gather data from the subjects and use it to lend credibility to this false profile," said Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine who led the research.

But about 40 percent of the 336 participants confirmed in later interviews that they remembered getting sick or believed it to be true. Compared with a control group, the believers said on questionnaires that they would be much more likely to avoid eating pickles or hard-boiled eggs if offered them at a party. In another study, just completed, the researchers found that people who were told that they loved asparagus as children were much more drawn to that slender delicacy than those whose memories were left alone.

Proust's reflections on tea and cookies notwithstanding, the earliest experience of taste is as open to tampering as other memories, Dr. Loftus said. If these revisions became permanent, they might affect how and what people eat. "What we'd like to do now," Dr. Loftus said, "is take the students out for a real picnic and see what happens."


Placebo affect?

Although isn't it true that people crave "comfort" foods for a physical reason?

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Suggestibility and taste aversion

I think it is a demonstration of the general "power of suggestion" effect. In this case, I think most of us have sufficient experience with "taste aversion learning" to be wary of foods we even think might be associated with illness.

I've always been fascinated by this phenomenon: Animals (and humans) in the wild exhibit what has been called "neophobia", "fear of new things". This is highly adaptive to the young of a species -- new creatures, either of your own or of another species, might pose a danger to life and security so it is adaptive to have a built-in "caution" or even "fear" reaction. Similarly, with new foods, there is always the possibility (in the wild anyway) that the new food may be toxic to your species or to you personally (e.g., anaphylactic allergic reactions), so hesitation about new foods is again adaptive. And with a familiar food, one experience with feeling ill, even if in reality the illness isn't connected with that food, is often sufficient to create a learned aversion to the food, whiuch again might well be adaptive.

But Elizabeth Loftus is well-known for her work on the fallibility of memory and the influence of suggestion -- she has published extensively on problems with eye-witness testimony and on "false memory syndrome" (see Recovered Memories and "False Memory Syndrome". I think in this case her interest is in expanding on her research into the considerable power of suggestibility.
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