If you're having a bad day or you're not feeling well, do you look for a favorite childhood meal? Maybe it's dad's lasagna, or Aunt Kelly's chocolate cookies, or mom's chicken soup? How does it make you feel?
Comfort food is food that causes the consumer to feel more psychologically comfortable. It may be food that is associated with a sense of home or contentment, or has some degree of nostalgia linked to it. The phenomenon of the perceived soothing properties of food, particularly in the context of change or disruption to normal routines, is called the "comfort food premise." What these comfort items are will vary by person, but they all impact us in a similar way: they are soothing, re-establish the familiar, and have some element of nostalgia (which may enhance our sense of security). Our physical response to these types of foods is grounded in food science: many common comfort foods have a high fat or sugar content which in turn provide a short-term physiological boost. This type of behavior—seeking "comfort" items—extends well beyond food: Favorite movies, a favorite sweater, or participating in a hobby, like fishing, may all bring a degree of comfort in response to situations that differ from the established norms. But is this anything more than a lay theory? Do we really look to familiar things in times of change or have we just latched on to the idea that this is what we should do?
Research certainly supports the idea that familiar items can help minimize negative aspects of change or disruption. We foster this from an early age: children are given comfort items in the form of pacifiers and blankets and stuffed animals that are meant to help them when they feel afraid or uncertain or unwell. They help us establish consistency and control in times when we may not have a firm grasp on life. But times of change or uncertainty are perfect opportunities to explore new options because the constraints of habit and routine are broken. In testing our inclination toward the familiar, researchers found that we might be more open to new experiences during periods of change, uncertainty, or otherwise normative disruptive times than we are letting on.
Researchers defined a series of studies to track the validity of the comfort food premise:
- In the first study, researchers explored product choice and familiarity between participants who were experiencing high and low life changes. American participants were offered a choice between a drawing for a very popular brand of American potato chips and an unfamiliar brand of British potato "crisps." The option was made intentionally similar to reduce bias but also to invoke the physiological "benefits" of common comfort food (i.e., the boost from fat and sugar content). Participants who reported higher degrees of life change were significantly more likely to select the crisps option as opposed to the familiar brand of chips that they knew. This response is not what you would expect given the strength of the comfort food premise, which would suppose that in such a volatile time people would be more inclined to stick with what they know and trust.
- In the second study, researchers compared the choice of the unfamiliar item to the expectations held by participants. They were asked what chip-type they felt their peers would choose against high and low degrees of changes in their lives. Participants predicted that others will behave in accordance with the comfort food premise: they would be more likely to select crisps in times of stability and low change, but more likely to stick with the familiar chips in times of high change. They pointedly indicated the familiar choice would be tied to a need for stability while a new option would better break the monotony of established stability.
- In the third study, researchers sought to confirm the degree to which the comfort food premise extended beyond food. Participants were asked to make decisions on a variety of choices. For example, if all other conditions were equal (like cost), would you order your "usual" at a Chinese food restaurant or try something new? Would you be willing to try a new deodorant or purchase a new brand? Would you download a free song from an artist you know or a new artist? Would you buy a six pack of yogurt in the same flavor or would you purchase a variety pack? Against the conditions of high versus low life changes, participants experiencing high degrees of change more frequently indicated that they would be willing to try the new option.
- In the fourth study, researchers tested whether the perceived bias toward comfort food/items could be reversed if people were asked to make more deliberate decisions. They re-ran the first study but added instructions for half of the participants to stop and think carefully about why they were making their chosen decision. These instructions made the choice a "high-involvement event" in that it presumably forced participants to be more cognizant of their choice. The results reported were significant: in the "low-involvement events," the trend was maintained where participants chose the new option as degrees of reported life changes increased. However, this relationship disappeared for high-involvement participants. These results indicate that the comfort food premise is prevalent in instances where deliberate action is not needed; it is the "easy" option.
- And finally, in the fifth study researchers assigned random life changes to participants in an effort to rule out potential self-selection among participants who were perhaps inclined toward change and novel experiences, as well as those who were more inclined to experience positive mind states from variety-seeking behavior. Half of participants were asked to list two big changes in their lives at the moment, and the other half were asked to list eight big changes. The intent was to consciously emphasize a degree of change. In line with the findings from other studies, participants who felt they were experiencing more change were more likely to select the non-familiar option of crisps.
Taken together, these findings suggest that the comforting choice may not always be the prevailing option, but it is the option that social norms have established as the expected response.
The comfort food premise is great example of how lay theories--commonly held intuitions--can help drive behavior and set expectations for responses. The accepted belief that comfort food can help you feel better if you're unwell or stressed means that we're likely to accept personal experiences as validation. Choosing comfort food can be a coping strategy if people believe that a familiar item can offset some of the undesirable results of change, such as feelings of uncertainty or emotional fatigue.
The high-involvement result is especially interesting because it means that comfort food is a deliberate choice. From a social perspective, if you're not feeling well and someone asks what you'd like for dinner, you can make a deliberately comforting selection. You will have time to think about other instances when you've felt similarly and connect that to a food that you enjoyed during that period. However if someone were to say to you, "I heard you weren't feeling well so I brought you some chocolate chip cookies," you might take those cookies without considering mom's famous chicken soup. If that person offered you a choice between oatmeal raisin cookies and chocolate chip cookies, you might choose the former using the layman's logic that oatmeal is a healthier option and thus likely to be good for you and help you feel better.
For marketers, the research has implications for brand loyalty. People who have moved might be inclined to purchase a different brand of cleaning supplies or parents who are sending their first child off to school may be more inclined to stop for coffee or take up a fitness program if it fits with their other priorities as their time commitments may be different. As targeted marketing grows, it's possible to get better data about pending changes and speak specifically to these people about opportunities for a new experience.
Make no mistake, the idea and use of comfort foods probably isn’t going anywhere. Socially, this kind of norm also gives us a way to connect to others. While it is true that our personal definitions of comfort food and comfort items may differ, there is a social back of acceptable items we can draw from to help someone in need. And we're assured success because norms dictate that these items should be accepted as such. Comfort foods get their power from our belief in them. And as they are a very accessible thing that we can control and manage, our need for these items will not dissipate.
What does comfort food mean to you? Still have a blankie? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
Wood, Stacy (2010). The Comfort Food Fallacy: Avoiding Old Favorites in Times of Change. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(6): 950-963.
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