Three years ago psychologists reported that we assume people who like sweet food are also sweet natured. More surprisingly perhaps, Brian Meier and his colleagues also found that the sweet-toothed really do have more agreeable personalities and are more inclined to behave altruistically.
How far can we trust these eye-catching results? There is a growing recognition in psychology of the need to attempt replications of past findings. In that spirit, a new paper led by Michael Ashton has attempted to replicate the specific finding that people who like sweet things are also more sweet natured.
Over 600 student participants completed personality and taste preference tests in pairs; a much larger sample than in the earlier research. In each pair both parties had known each other for at least six months. They scored their own personality and taste preferences, and in private they scored the personality of their friend. This is an advantage over the research from three years ago, which relied solely on people’s self-reports of their own personality. Another advantage of the new study is that the researchers used two different personality scales – a measure of the Big Five factors used previously and also a measure of the so-called HEXACO personality dimensions, including honesty and humility.
A preference for sweet tasting foods did correlate with having more agreeable or prosocial personality traits using the HEXACO dimensions, but only weakly: 0.15 based on self-reports of personality and less than 0.10 based on the personality scores given by a friend. This rose to 0.19 and dropped to 0.06 using measures of the Big Five factor of agreeableness. These are modest associations and they’re less than half the strength reported by Brian Meier and his colleagues three years ago.
Ashton and his colleagues aren’t surprised that with a larger sample and more comprehensive personality measures they found a greatly reduced association between preference for sweet foods and having a sweet personality. They believe there’s no compelling psychological explanation for why sweet-natured people should prefer sweet foods. After all, you could just as easily reason that a sweet-natured person doesn’t need to seek out sweet tastes because they’re sweet enough already, as reason that a sweet natured person is drawn to sweet tastes (this reminds me of a tea-shop waitress I encountered recently who asked every table “Would you like sugar or are you sweet enough already?”).
If there isn’t really a link between being sweet-natured and sweet-toothed (or only a very weak link), why is it our convention to describe altruistic, kind people as “sweet”? Ashton’s team have a simple explanation: “… because sweet foods are generally liked very much, people may use ‘sweet’ and related words to describe anything – or anyone – that is especially appreciated or enjoyed.”
Ashton, M., Pilkington, A., & Lee, K. (2014). Do prosocial people prefer sweet-tasting foods? An attempted replication of Meier, Moeller, Riemer-Peltz, and Robinson (2012) Journal of Research in Personality, 52, 42-46 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2014.06.006
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