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Singing 'Happy Birthday' makes the cake taste better

It’s your birthday! You hate attention. But you do love cake. So before you stuff your gullet with red velvet deliciousness, you’d better suffer through the annual off-key embarrassment of everyone singing “Happy Birthday” to you – and then blow out the candles and make a wish, too. That’s because a new study suggests that performing a ritual before eating -- even a silly thing like our American birthday traditions – actually makes the food taste better.

You’re already doing this, and not just with birthday celebrations – and even if you don’t realize it. You clink glasses together and say “cheers” before sharing a drink with friends. You take apart wooden chopsticks and rub the sticks together before digging into sushi. Or maybe you Instagram every meal before taking a bite. Around the world, plenty of other cultures have this figured out -- take the preparation and presentation behind a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, for just one example.

All of these things are helping us to be more mindful about what we’re about to eat or drink, which means we’ll enjoy and savor the food or beverage more, as this new research demonstrates.

“We found that people's attention is piqued when they perform a ritual and that helps them to be more involved in what they are eating or drinking,” said Kathleen D. Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, and lead author of the new study, in an email. “Even new rituals – that people never had done before – when done before eating or drinking make food taste better.”

In one experiment, researchers recruited 52 researchers and told them to eat a chocolate bar; about half were given instructions on a ritual to follow before eating it. They were told, “Without unwrapping the chocolate bar, break it in half. Unwrap half of the bar and eat it. Then, unwrap the other half and eat it.” The others were just told to relax for a bit, and then eat the candy like a regular person. As it turned out, the people who had done the weird little song-and-dance routine before eating the chocolate ended up saying that they enjoyed it more than those who ate the chocolate normally. They also took longer to eat it and said they would pay more for the chocolate. And this doesn’t just apply to candy: similar experiments in the study were done using lemonade and even carrots.

The reason why we enjoy food and drink more when we go through a system of rites first appears to be that we like to feel more involved in what we’re consuming. “Rituals seem to improve the consumption experience because they lead to greater involvement and interest,” the authors write in the paper published this month in the journal Psychological Science. “When people perform a ritual, their intrinsic interest increases, which in turn leads to more enjoyable consumption.”

Next, Vohs would like to test whether this concept can be used to help people avoid overeating, and she’d also like to see if it can get people to enjoy and happily consume foods they usually hate.

“(Rituals) can make some of life's little and greatest pleasures -- enjoying a meal or a nice beverage -- more enjoyable. So use them -- make use of rituals you already use and start new ones,” Vohs said. “Make a ritual around eating each night. Set the table, bless the food, use a tablecloth, etc.”