neurogastronomy scientists across the past decade have revealed that noise
plays a surprising role in our perceptions and behaviors, specifically around
consumption. Pitch, volume, and type of noise play a unique and powerful role
in how we interact with food.
Pitch refers to the degree of highness or lowness
of a tone. It refers to the quality of sound, and the steps in register. Think
of a scale, played on the piano. But pitch is more than just a part of music.
It’s an indicator of size, both in the real world and in cognitive association.
Heavy, large bodies tend to emit lower vibrations, which make for lower,
deeper, sounds. Smaller, lighter objects emit faster vibrations, which come
across as a high-pitched noise. This is why a cow bell makes a different tone
when struck than the tone of a wind chime. Curiously enough, this phenomenon shows
up in the animal kingdom as well, where there is a general inverse relationship
between size and vocalization (which bark has a higher pitch – that from a
Chihuahua, or an English Mastiff?)
It makes sense, with everything we experience
in life, that we build connections between the pitch of a sound and the size of
an object. But – and this is where it gets really interesting – given sound as stimuli
and presented with a picture, our brain will make the cognitive jump to decide
just how big that object must be. In one study, participants were shown an
advertisement for a sandwich, accompanied by a voiceover produced at a
digitally controlled pitch. The sandwich was the same, the
spoken content was the same, but participants who heard a lower-pitched
voiceover perceived the sandwich as larger than those who had heard a
higher-pitched voice.1 The brain could not see or touch the actual
object, so it used all available cues – including sound – to build a mental
representation that was easier to understand. Pitch-based marketing is only
beginning to be explored; based on its power to influence, it’s remarkable the
strategy isn’t in practice already.
Pitch isn’t the only player in influencing consumer consumption. Volume has a significant impact on our sensory experience, both in what we taste and how much we enjoy it. Studies have shown that consumers in louder environments eat more quickly and consume more, even beyond the point at which they feel full. Several well-known restaurants and chains have intuitively noticed the influence of the volume of noise on consumers, and have adapted accordingly. Particularly, industry research found that the Hard Rock Café “had the practice down to a science ever since its founders realized that by playing loud, fast music, patrons talked less, consumed more and left quickly.” But noise itself has a subliminal impact – not just music. Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found that over a 4 year study, consumer waist size increased an average of 3cm for every 10 decibel increase in traffic noise levels(2). Discoveries like these may lead us to consider just how much louder sounds influence our own consumption behavior.
There are a few reasons that might contribute to this trend of faster eating in larger quantities. Amazingly enough, these reasons are also related to sound volume. Volume influences the perception of taste. In louder controlled environments, consumers perceived food items as less sweet and less sour than they did in a quieter setting. Researchers link this suppression of taste to cognitive attention spread across more stimuli. This decrease in perception, however, does not come with a decrease in enjoyment associated with consumption. In fact, studies show that consuming items in a loud environment (whether white noise or music) actually increases the pleasure derived from consumption. So a loud, noisy setting can make flavors less intense, but eating more enjoyable, speeding consumption, and making us eat more!
It’s incredible how our senses can derive so much from our surroundings, and use cues subconsciously to drive our perceptions and behavior. Sound definitely isn’t the first thing you’d associate with how sweet a cookie tastes, but without you even knowing, it could be influencing your enjoyment. Next time you eat, consider pausing and thinking about why you chose that item, where you are, and whether sound may have shaped your experience. Who knows – you may introduce a whole new sense into eating!
Carrie is Associate Research Executive at MMR NYC