Anyone who’s endured chatty movie audiences or a rock stuck in their shoe knows how hard it is to enjoy yourself when you’re uncomfortable. Discomfort is a form of physical stress, which can have profound effects on the senses. Now, researchers publishing in the Journal of Consumer Research show that discomfort can even reduce how much a person enjoys their food, suggesting there’s a simple posture fix that can make the experience a better one.
In a paper published on May 11, researchers led by the University of South Florida’s marketing professor Dipayan Biswas, Ph.D., shows that eating while standing reduces a person’s enjoyment of food, leading them to eat less of it than seated eaters.
Physical stress “associated with maintaining standing postures, even for a brief period, can reduce sensory sensitivity,” they write. “Additionally, we show that this decreased sensory sensitivity has implications for food and beverage taste evaluation, food temperature perception, and overall consumption volume.”
In the first of six experiments to investigate how sitting or standing influences our enjoyment of food, 358 participants were brought to either a lab with chairs or one without them, under the presumption that they were doing a simple taste test. Fifteen of them had to be excluded because they guessed what the real purpose of the study was.
Among the remaining participants, sitters rated the pita chip snack as significantly tastier than the standers.
Seeking to understand why this was the case, the team hypothesized that negative associations with eating on the go or rushing could reduce enjoyment and that focusing on the physical discomfort of standing distracted from the tasting experience.
To tease apart this interaction, volunteers in the next three experiments sampled foods under different conditions, which always included a comparison of sitting versus standing. In all these experiments, participants rated their physical and psychological stress and their enjoyment of the foods.
The evidence suggested that the feeling of relaxation played a role in enjoyment. Notably, when standing volunteers ate a cookie after drinking a placebo beverage said to “induce physical relaxation,” they rated the cookie as more enjoyable than other standers, though not as enjoyable as the sitters.
Another experiment tested whether these effects would hold true for unpleasant-tasting foods. Indeed, people who tasted an overly salty brownie while they were standing rated it as more pleasant than people who tasted it while sitting.
This suggested that the effect wasn’t about how sitting or standing affect enjoyment but rather how they change a person’s attention to their own sensory experiences. The people who were standing enjoyed the nasty brownie more, the researchers conclude, because they weren’t paying as much attention to it, instead focusing on their standing posture.
In the final experiment, volunteers sampled hot coffee to test how sitting and standing affected another dimension of sensory perception, namely temperature. In this experiment, standers drank less coffee and noticed the temperature less than sitters.
The authors’ advice to marketers is to be aware of a “sixth sense” beyond the traditional five: vestibular sense, the system associated with balance and spatial orientation.
This is particularly of interest to restaurant managers, the authors point out, especially since food trucks and standing-only restaurants have become more popular. “The results of our studies suggest that managers at restaurants might find it to be an optimal strategy to encourage diners to sit down while eating,” they write.
For the average person, these results also suggest that making a very simple change in body position can have a profound impact on the experience of eating. Alternatively, for anyone looking to curb their food intake, standing may prove to be a worthwhile distraction.
Abstract: Prior research has examined the role of the traditional five sensory systems (visual, olfactory, haptic, auditory, and gustatory) and how they influence food evaluations. This research extends the boundaries of sensory marketing by examining the effects of the vestibular system, often referred to as the “sixth sensory system,” which is responsible for balance and posture. The results of six experiments show that vestibular sensations related to posture (i.e., sitting vs. standing) influence food taste perceptions. Specifically, standing (vs. sitting) postures induce greater physical stress on the body, which in turn decreases sensory sensitivity. As a result, when eating in a standing (vs. sitting) posture, consumers rate the taste of pleasant-tasting foods and beverages as less favorable, the temperature as less intense, and they consume smaller amounts. The effects of posture on taste perception are reversed for unpleasant-tasting foods.
These findings have conceptual implications for broadening the frontiers of sensory marketing and for the effects of sensory systems on food taste perceptions. Given the increasing trend toward eating while standing, the findings also have practical implications for restaurant, retail, and other food-service environment designs.