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Just How Sweet Is The Taste Of Victory?


The sweet taste of victory, how sweet it is. Well, exactly how sweet is it? Scientists at Cornell University wanted to know. More precisely, they wanted to know if an exciting and positive experience actually improved how things taste and vice versa. So being at Cornell, they naturally turned to thoughts of hockey. And they asked the school's hockey fans to taste various things after their team won or lost. Now, Robin Dando is an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell. He was a co-author of the study, and he joins us on the line from Ithaca, N.Y.

Welcome to the program.

ROBIN DANDO: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: So is victory sweet? What did you find?

DANDO: Well, what we found was that in a situation when a team won, samples would taste sweeter and less sour. In the losing condition, people didn't like the sample so much. We were giving them samples of different flavors of ice cream. Now, from game to game, they assumed that the flavors were changing very slightly, but in fact we were giving them the exact same flavors and rating how they perceived the tastes with different emotional state.

WERTHEIMER: So they were saying, I like the one you had last week better?

DANDO: (Laughter) Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Well, now, why is there a difference, do you think?

DANDO: Well, this work arose from some earlier work I did as a postdoc where we looked into the taste buds and saw a high concentration of serotonin receptors. Serotonin is linked with happiness and mood. And around about the same time, a researcher in England had published that patients that they gave SSRIs - so these are antidepressants that work on the serotonin system - started to perceive taste differently. So what we thought was how about in a natural situation, where instead of antidepressants improving your mood, your mood is elevated from a day-to-day condition. What I thought was a really nice model of this is a sporting arena, where we can be incredibly happy and incredibly sad just from one day to the next.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) From one period to the next.

DANDO: (Laughter) Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think you've developed some new kind of research here doing research at games?

DANDO: This wasn't an ideal environment. It was a little fanatic...

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

DANDO: ...To run the data collection. You have people who've maybe had a few drinks. You have small children that just want samples of ice cream (laughter) of course, and who can blame them for that? So we ended up having to exclude quite a few people who didn't fill out their surveys completely. So it wasn't an ideal place to run a study, but it certainly was an interesting place to run a study.

WERTHEIMER: So in the field of food science, do think there's any sort of possible application of this? Could you figure out something to do with this information that you've just gathered?

DANDO: Well, we think that this information, rather than speaking to food science, might speak to the concept of emotional eating. The sample that people liked the most, they didn't penalize it so badly when the team lost. Whereas, the sample that they weren't so keen on, they really didn't like it as soon as the team had lost the game. So in a situation where you're really unhappy, you have to go for the thing that you know is tasting great, despite how unhealthy it might be.

WERTHEIMER: Robin Dando is an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University. The results of the study have been published in the journal Appetite. Robin Dando, thank you very much.

DANDO: Thank you.


WERTHEIMER: That's Cornell's Big Red Marching Band, but you probably knew that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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