Aug. 6, 2013 at 8:11 AM ET
When it comes to chilies and peppers and other spicy ingredients, some people like a little, some like a lot, and others aren’t happy unless their tongue is about to spontaneously combust.
“I want 15 stars,” says Michael Lillie, a 43-year-old medical sales executive from Bellevue, Wash. “I love chilies and lots of garlic. I practically want the food on fire when it comes out. I may have remedial taste buds so I have to fire the hell out of them just to get them going.”
Then again, he could just have a spicy personality.
A new study presented recently at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting suggests there’s a correlation between preferences for spicy food and risk-taking personalities.
“In general, for an individual who is low ‘sensation seeking,’ as the perceived burning or stinging of a meal increases, their liking will drop much more quickly than someone who is a high ‘sensation seeking,’” says Nadia Byrnes, a doctoral candidate at Penn State University’s department of food science.
Byrnes says she wasn’t surprised that a relationship between spicy food and risk taking existed, but was surprised by the clear correlation she and colleagues found.
“The fact that we showed such a strong predictive relationship between liking of spicy foods and a single personality trait was quite shocking,” she says, adding that the findings were much stronger than previous studies that examined personality and food preferences.
For the study, researchers gave nearly 200 nonsmoking participants, ages 18 to 45, a test known as Arnett’s Inventory of Sensation Seeking (AISS) to determine their level of risk-taking behavior.
“The scale asks questions about how much the individual likes certain sensations, such as listening to loud music, watching highly suspenseful movies, public speaking, gambling, and standing on the edge of something high and looking down,” says Byrnes.
After the behaviors were assessed, each subject was then given 25 micrometers of capsaicin -- the active component of chili peppers -- dissolved in a glass of water and were asked to swish it around in their mouth for a few seconds, like mouthwash. After swishing and spitting, they were then asked to rate how much they liked spicy meals as the capsaicin went to work.
People who scored low on the AISS test quickly expressed a dislike for spicy foods; people who scored high were happy as clams – in garlic sauce.
Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago says the correlation between risk taking and spicy food makes total sense to him.
“There’s a long-standing hypothesis that risk takers are adrenaline deficient and that they take risks to get that adrenaline and feel better,” he says. “So they’ll work with bombs or in other high risk environments and then they’ll feel normal. Similarly, when you eat hot spicy food, I gives you a little bit of pain and therefore enhances your adrenaline level.”
How do these findings line up with the spice-loving Lillie?
“If someone says, ‘Hey, let’s go bungee jumping,’ I’d go bungee jumping just to try it out,” he says, adding that he also likes roller coasters, motorcycles, and hopes to go skydiving some day.
Pat Tanumihardja, on the other hand, says she doesn’t like roller coasters (she gets vertigo) and has never been hang gliding or sky diving in her life.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a big risk taker but neither am I always playing it safe,” says the 39-year-old food writer from Fairfax, Virginia. “I like to do my research first and find out what all my options and alternatives are before I jump in.”
What’s her preference when it comes to spicy meals?
“I’m a one to no star person,” says the author of The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. “A total disgrace to my Indonesian taste buds.”
Byrnes herself admits to being a “fiend” for wasabi, horseradish and mustard -- “My rule of thumb is if I don’t get tunnel vision, I need more” -- but says just because someone likes spicy food, it doesn’t automatically make them a risk taker.
“I don’t think we can say that spicy food lovers are always risk takers, since there are always exceptions to the rules,” she says. “However, it wouldn’t be totally off base to guess that someone who enjoys spicy foods would also be someone who would be inclined to enjoy taking certain risks, like riding roller coasters.”
Maybe yes, maybe no, says Tanumihardja, who says her mild-mannered mother loves to snack on spicy raw chilies.
“Americans didn’t grow up with spice, so those who acquire that taste for spice might be risk takers,” she says. “But in Asia, it’s part of the culture. It doesn’t describe the personality or character. I think Asia would be a chaotic place if that were the case.”