The psychology of taste is unravelled in a new study that shows customers perceive food as being tastier if they pay more for it.

Researchers from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, partnered with a high-quality Italian buffet to investigate how pricing influences customers’ perceptions of what they are eating.

The team offered 139 customers a choice between paying $4 or $8 for the restaurant’s standard all-you-can-eat buffet. The diners were invited to evaluate the food and restaurant, rating their first, middle and last taste of the food on a nine-point scale.

The people who paid for the $8 buffet enjoyed their food more than the people who ate the $4 option.

On average, the $8 diners gave their food an 11% higher score than the $4 diners, despite the two groups eating about the same amount overall.

By contrast, the $4 customers were more likely to report feeling that they had overeaten, feeling guilty about eating the meal, and even reported that they liked the food less and less throughout the dining experience.

Ozge Sigirci, a researcher at Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, who presented the findings at the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting, says that the team was surprised by the findings:

a dish and drinking glass both filled with dollar billsShare on Pinterest
On average, the $8 diners gave their food an 11% higher score than the $4 diners, despite the two groups eating about the same amount overall.

“If the food is there, you are going to eat it, but the pricing very much affects how you are going to feel about your meal and how you will evaluate the restaurant.”

Researchers in public health have expressed concern over all-you-can-eat buffets, suggesting that they might promote overeating and therefore contribute to obesity.

This has led health advocates to propose new taxes specific to buffet consumers or buffet restaurant owners.

However, this study did not set out to examine the public health concerns over all-you-can-eat buffets, rather the researchers were interested in the psychology behind the restaurant experience for the consumer.

“If you’re a consumer and want to eat at a buffet, the best thing to do is eat at the most expensive buffet you can afford. You won’t eat more, but you’ll have a better experience overall,” says Brian Wansink, PhD, a professor at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, who oversaw the research.

He adds:

We were fascinated to find that pricing has little impact on how much one eats, but a huge impact on how you interpret the experience. Simply cutting the price of food at a restaurant dramatically affects how customers evaluate and appreciate the food.”

Dr. Wansink is the author of an upcoming book about how design choices influence eating behavior. “This is an example of how a really small change can transform how a person interacts with food in a way that doesn’t entail dieting,” he concludes, of the latest addition to his body of research on the subject.

Other researchers have also examined how psychological influences can appear to change the taste of the food we eat.

In 2013, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study in the journal Psychological Science that examined “food rituals.” In this study, University of Minnesota researchers gave a group of participants a set of instructions on how to eat a piece of chocolate, while a second group were told they could eat the chocolate however they wanted.

The researchers found that the group who followed the instructions “rated the chocolate more highly, savored it more, and were willing to pay more for the chocolate.”