November 24, 2011 | 2
My grandmother was born in Sobrance, in what was then called Czechoslovakia on November 5, 1930. She grew up in ten kilometers away, in a small town called Nagy-Muzsaly. Her father’s family were landowners, something that was very rare for Jewish families at the time, and they used that land to produce wine. My grandmother’s family led simple lives. All that changed, though, when my grandmother was 13 years old. On the last day of Passover in 1944, my grandmother and her family were first deported by the Nazis. She was taken to the ghetto at Beregszas, in Hungary, along with her three sisters and her parents, Blanca and Moshe, where they remained housed in a brick factory, for about 6 weeks. Then, they were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. That was the last time that my grandmother saw her parents, and her two younger sisters, Agi and Vera.
She survived Auschwitz through some combination of luck and determination, only to end up being taken from work camp to work camp in Germany. After being liberated by the British Army on May 14, 1945, she spent most of that summer in a hospital.
My grandmother knew little of comfort in her life, aside from those early years in Nagy-Muzsaly. That’s not to say that she didn’t find some measure of happiness, of course. She met my grandfather, gave birth to my mother, and found purpose in teaching Hebrew school to third graders for nearly forty years. She took great joy in participating in the rearing of my brother and myself. Still, though, her experiences in the war left lasting marks on her, both physically and emotionally. From her family’s deportation to her liberation, the entire ordeal only lasted a little over a year. And still, those early experiences changed her forever. She rarely slept through the night. She was always anxious, often crying in response to what I considered trivial matters. While a fantastic cook, she took no great joy in eating. When the family wasn’t over, her meals consisted mainly of instant coffee, burnt toast, and fruit.
And yet my strongest memories of comfort from my childhood and adolescence are associated with my grandmother and her kitchen. Whenever I was sick, I asked her to make “feel better soup.” Feel better soup was not chicken soup – as is perhaps the case in many American Jewish households – it was komenymagleves, a Hungarian caraway seed soup. When I went to college, even though my dorm at USC was only some forty miles from her house in Northridge, I was sent with plastic containers of frozen feel better soup. Years later, some time after she’d passed away (in March 2008), I found myself feeling incredibly sad and desperately lonely after a particularly painful breakup. And I found myself attempting to recreate her feel better soup.
How was it that comfort, for me, was so strongly associated with a woman who must have had to work so hard to find her own comfort in life?
It’s no secret that people often consume comfort food when they experience negative emotions, as an attempt to create within themselves a more positive emotional state. In a paper recently published in the journal Psychological Science, psychologists Jordan D. Troisi and Shira Gabriel proposed that “comfort food derives its appeal from cognitive associations with relationships and that the comfort of comfort food can be understood by examining its effects on loneliness.”
Indeed, feelings of loneliness and social isolation are unpleasant and can be downright dangerous, leading to outcomes ranging from hurt feelings and reduced self-esteem to depression and sometimes physical pain. In order to avoid loneliness, sometimes people seek out “social surrogates,” or “non-human social targets.” In other words, in order to fill a void left by social partners, people will immerse themselves in the alternative social worlds of TV, movies, or books. Others find refuge in the implied intimacy of online social networks, such as by following their favorite celebrities and science bloggers. Still others escape into old photo albums or letters or, for the millennial generation, perhaps old emails, chat transcripts, and favorited tweets. In each case, the socially isolated person is attempting to artificially recreate a feeling of belongingness. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps quite reasonable for people to find solace in familiar foods.
Understood from within the framework of embodied cognition, the idea that foods could serve as social surrogates actually makes quite a bit of sense. To use a familiar example, since social exclusion is associated with “interpersonal coldness,” social rejection makes people feel physically cold. Likewise, since warmth is associated with friendliness, holding a warm beverage made people judge others more favorably. Similarly, Troisi and Gabriel’s hypothesis goes something like this: since comfort foods are usually eaten with important social partners, the perceptual experience of eating those foods becomes associated over time with the emotional experience of social comfort. Therefore, the eating (or even just the thinking about eating) of comfort foods will automatically activate the experience of psychological comfort.
First, they tested the hypothesis that comfort foods are associated with interpersonal relationships. It is well-known in psychology that when one cognitive construct becomes activated in working memory, associated constructs are also activated. For example, when given a list of words to memorize that include words like “pillow,” “dream,” “slumber,” “bed,” and “tired,” people will often recall that the word “sleep” was also included, even though it wasn’t. Therefore, the researchers had 111 participants eat a particular food (chicken soup), and afterwards, they measured the activation of relationship-related concepts. Critically, all participants ate the same food, but it was only associated with comfort for half of them. Also, critically, the association of chicken soup with comfort was not associated with any other variable, such as race or sex.
Upon arriving at the lab, half of the participants were randomly fed a warm bowl of chicken soup, and half were not. By organizing the experiment in this way, the researchers created four groups:
(1) chicken soup as comfort food, fed chicken soup;
(2) chicken soup not comfort food, fed chicken soup;
(3) chicken soup as comfort food, not fed chicken soup;
(4) chicken soup not comfort food; not fed chicken soup.
Next, all participants were given a word completion task, comprised of a list of word fragments. Some of the fragments could be completed to form relationship-related words, such as “include,” or “like,” some of them could be made into feeling-related words, like “joy,” or “worry,” and there were control words that, when completed, were not relationship- or feeling-related, like “there,” “end,” or “sort.” Finally, all participants were given questionnaires that measured their current mood.
They found that those who thought of chicken soup as comfort food completed more of the relationship-related words only if they were given chicken soup to eat, while there was no difference among those who did not consider chicken soup to be a comfort food. Additional analyses of the feeling-related words showed that the effect for those comforted by chicken soup was specific to relationship-related words and did not extend to feeling-related words. Put another way, those who reported that chicken soup was a comfort food and ate chicken soup did not simply feel more positive in general.
Having established that comfort foods were related to social relationships, the researchers turned their attention to the question of whether comfort foods reduced feelings of loneliness. In a new experiment, with 110 new participants randomly assigned to each condition, participants first wrote for six minutes either about a fight with a close other (the belongingness-threat condition) or about the contents of their homes (the control condition). Then, they either wrote about the experience of eating a comfort food or the experience of trying a new food, without time limits. Finally, just as in the first experiment, participants were given questionnaires measuring their current mood, as well as measurements designed to assess the participants’ attachment style. (Attachment style can be thought of as a metric for how people form social relationships.)
The findings were pretty straightforward: the food-experience essays showed that comfort foods were more often identified as a favorite food, a family tradition, a cultural tradition, something eaten for a holiday, or something eaten for a significant family event. They were also more often associated with memories of the participants’ pasts, and were more often described as reminders of home.
When the researchers analyzed the data separately based on relationship attachment style, they found that the effect held for those who showed secure attachment, but not for those with insecure attachment styles. That is, for individuals who had positive associations with relationships (securely attached), writing about comfort foods reduced the effects of the belongingness threat on loneliness, while there was no effect for the insecurely attached participants.
Taken together, both experiments convincingly suggest that comfort food can act as a “social surrogate,” and can be used to overcome the feelings of loneliness and social exclusion. The effects shown were not a result of an overall mood enhancement provided by comfort food, but seemed to specifically target social emotions. A skeptic might suggest that some foods, due to physical warmth, texture, sugar or fat content, or other similar properties, may be more likely to impact on the social emotions, but the first experiment suggests otherwise: even though both groups ate chicken soup, it was only the ones who found chicken soup to be a comfort food who showed the experimental effect.
There is one nagging issue with these results, and it is appropriately discussed by the researchers: the experimental participants were all college undergraduates. This is an age at which most people are away from home for the first time in their lives, so the comforting aspect of comfort food may be especially effective or salient. It remains to be seen whether this effect would persist for other groups of people – both older and younger, or for cultures which perhaps think differently about the nature of social relationships.
To be clear, this research is just one part of a larger scientific picture. Yes, the participants were college undergraduate students. Yes, the experiments primarily included questionnaires and word games. (Questionnaires and word games which happen to be used quite a bit, and quite effectively, in social psychological research.) Think of this research as an early step in the long road of scientific inquiry towards understanding the relationship between the human body and the social emotions.
That people seek out comfort foods when they’re feeling down is not news, but this research helps to explain the mechanism by which comfort foods actually provide comfort, by directly linking comfort food with social emotions and social relationships. This is really just another example of a very basic form of associative learning. It’s not that my grandmother’s feel better soup makes me feel better, per se. Instead, it’s that the physiological experience of eating her soup is associated with the psychological experience of interacting with her. If I had never formed the association between her soup and her company, komenymagleves would be a soup like any other. Just as delicious, but psychologically ordinary.
Troisi JD, & Gabriel S (2011). Chicken soup really is good for the soul: “comfort food” fulfills the need to belong. Psychological science, 22 (6), 747-53 PMID: 21537054