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Better Keep Them Separated: Good Food and Good Experiences Do Not Mix Well

Better Keep Them Separated: Good Food and Good Experiences Do Not Mix Well

Ipek Ozer and Svetlana Tokareva

eating pizza

We often have some savory food in sight while engaging in a pleasant activity, like watching a game in a stadium or shopping in a mall. But have you ever considered that the presence of such food could adversely impact the joy from the concurrent experience? In a recent Journal of Marketing Research article, Emily N. Garbinsky and Anne-Katrin Klesse investigate how food’s presence influences the enjoyment of an activity, whether it be listening to music or engaging in leisure activities. The robust empirical evidence suggests that the presence of delicious food causes a mental simulation of tasting it, decreasing one’s engagement with the ongoing experience, thereby lowering the enjoyment of that experience.

Past research shows that exposure to delicious food has a positive impact on consumers’ enjoyment of the food when it is ultimately consumed. Building on the theory of mental imagery, the researchers predicted that the presence of food might decrease the enjoyment of customer experiences. Using a series of field and lab experiments, the authors demonstrate that the presence of delicious food results in lower enjoyment of the pleasurable target experience. In addition, they found that presenting food reduces the enjoyment of pleasant experiences and makes unpleasant experiences less unpleasant. Their research identifies the pitfall that comes with the proliferation of food as a means to enhance an experience and warns of the downsides of mixing food with pleasant experiences.

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The study has rich potential to spawn better managerial practices as well as individual takeaways. Companies should take into account that mixing food with experiences is not always a good idea. Unless it is a negative or cognitively demanding experience, limiting the visibility and accessibility of food could be a better course of action. A good example, the authors suggest, is the IKEA store design, where the eating experience is isolated from the shopping experience. Individuals can arrange the timing and the extent to which they are exposed to food or shopping, according to their favorability perceptions of the activity.

We had a chance to contact the authors to learn more about their study and gain additional insights.

Q: What finding was the most surprising for you? We are also interested in learning about how you came up with the research question.

A: We came up with the research question during a lunch at a well-known consumer behavior conference. We were sitting at a lunch table together with other attendees of the conference and were eating our appetizer (a salad). To our surprise, the dessert (a delicious cheesecake) was already sitting in front of everybody’s plate. We saw that some attendees tried to get the cake out of their sight whereas others already took some of it. That made us wonder how the presence of delicious food may influence ongoing experiences. Although we first investigated the effect on other food-related experiences (e.g., eating a salad), we quickly moved to extend our effect to other non-food-related activities. While we strongly believed that the presence of food can decrease the enjoyment of also unrelated experiences, it was slightly surprising to us that this effect even occurred at an actual concert, where attendees had voluntarily decided to go and were thus very involved in it).

Q: Do you anticipate a similar effect in the context of executing a work- or study-related task? How might the enjoyability of this cognitive task influence this process?

 A: That depends. We think the effect of the presence (vs. absence) of food occurs if consumers are not too cognitively involved in the ongoing task but may disappear in situations where consumers spend all their cognitive resources on the ongoing task and, thus, do not have the capacity to mentally simulate the upcoming food experience. In fact, we have conducted a study (which did not end up in the manuscript), in which we showed participants “Where’s Waldo?” pictures. One group was instructed to only look at the picture whereas the other group was instructed to find Waldo in the pictures; the presence (vs. absence) of food did not affect the latter group, potentially because they were too cognitively involved with finding Waldo.

Q: How can one start changing (savoring) habits according to the findings of your research? What would you recommend to others in arranging the physical presence of food in their daily life?

 A: Our research suggests that food and experiences don’t mix well. Thus, if you want to enjoy what you are currently doing (e.g., reading this blog by the AMA), then you should be fully engaged in this experience. The presence of food makes this more difficult. Thus, we suggest removing food from your sight until the moment of consumption. With the holidays in mind, we’d also like to suggest consumers leave the food in the kitchen until it is dinner time and first enjoy the conversations with the guests without being distracted by the delicious food that is waiting on the buffet or dining table.

Q: Do you think everybody experiences this effect to the same degree? Or would you expect some people (e.g., foodies or daydreamers) to engage in more mental imagery of food?

A: We did not explicitly test for individual difference variables that could attenuate versus strengthen this effect. Yet, we can think of a few examples that could be tested in future research. First, we expect this effect to be strengthened for consumers who are high on mental imagery, and thus can easily and promptly imagine (and visualize) the upcoming food consumption. On the contrary, we expect this effect to be weakened for consumers who like healthy rather than hedonic food; if consumers are not tempted by the chocolate cake (or cookies), they are unlikely to mentally simulate its consumption.

Q: You conducted 10 studies including lab and field studies. What challenges did you face during the experiments?

A: Our studies required the presence of real food. Thus, we could only run these studies in the field or in the laboratory since they are not feasible online. This was very challenging, particularly during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, because the laboratories of many schools were closed and people were reluctant to participate in studies conducted on campus. In addition, an ongoing challenge with laboratory/field experiments is getting enough participants within a decent time frame because data collection is much more labor-intensive and slower than when using online panels.

Q: What would you do differently if you could rerun the studies?

A: To be honest, we don’t want to rerun the studies as we carefully drafted them and think that they are pretty good as they are. However, if we could run additional studies, we would try to conduct a study in which we have more savory food that people typically consume for dinner (e.g., pizza or even different dishes on a buffet) and explore whether the presence of food could even influence how much consumers enjoy their conversation and interaction with other consumers (e.g., on a party or family get-together).

Read the full article:

Emily N. Garbinsky and Anne-Katrin Klesse (2021), “How (and When) the Presence of Food Decreases Enjoyment of Customer Experiences. Journal of Marketing Research, 58 (4), 705–20.

Ipek Ozer is a doctoral student at Esade Business School.

Svetlana Tokareva is a doctoral student at the University of Memphis.