eating spicy foods psychology

“Hot Heads”: Eating Spicy Food and Being Aggressive

I’ve never kept my love of eating spicy food a secret. For years, I’ve been content to add a few more drips of hot sauce to nearly everything, and I relish the chance to dive into something with a burn. I’m not as tongue-destroying  as others, but I do enjoy the rush.

That is until I read this new paper on the psychological side effects of spicy food. As it turns out, there’s a reliable connection between spicy foods and aggression. Although few would describe me as aggressive, the results of these studies shine an interesting light on the consistent–if subtle–connection between mind and body. Although it’s too early to tell just how reliable these findings are, the researchers present three studies to test this connection.

The most suggestive evidence for this connection is that we use similar language to describe spiciness and aggression. Spicy food is “hot,” and violent people are “hot tempered.” After all, research has shown that hot temperatures increase aggression, and spicy foods raise our body temperature.

The Kinds of People Who Like Spicy Food

One approach to thinking about this connection is to start by thinking of “spicy food love” as a personality trait. Are there certain kinds of people who are drawn to spicy food?

Sure enough, one link that people have made is with gender. On average, men tend to like spicy food and be more aggressive than women.

But it would be better to look at the link more directly. In a newly published study, researchers gave people personality-type surveys, which measured both their typical preference for spicy foods and how aggressive they tend to be.

The results point to a clear relationship: the more people like spicy food, the more aggressive they tend to be.

Does Spicy Food Provoke Aggression?

The personality findings are interesting, but who knows exactly what they mean. Is it really that spicy foods make people more aggressive or is that naturally aggressive people are just drawn to spice? Maybe there’s even something else that explains both type of traits–some underlying characteristic that makes people both like spicy foods and be aggressive.

spicy04So the researchers did a follow-up experiment. They had one group of people do a taste test with a simple, plain tortilla chip, and they had another group sample the same type of chip with a couple shakes of habanero hot sauce on top.

Then they got sneaky to see whether the heat prompted them to think more aggressively. They gave everyone a word puzzle with a list of partially completed words. The game was to fill in the missing pieces to make a real word. But for many of the puzzles, one possible solution was an aggressive word but there was another, non-aggressive possibility, too. For example, “H _ T” could be completed as “HIT” or as “HAT.” They simply counted up the number of words (out of 10) that people completed with a violent word.

Under normal, plain tortilla conditions, people solved the puzzles with an aggressive word about 38% of the time. But hot sauce made people think more aggressively. With just a few drops of hot sauce, people then solved the puzzles with an aggressive word about 56% of the time.

Should We Ban Spicy Food?

Whoa, hold on. Let’s think about this before we go making crazy decisions.

As with a lot of psychology research, these results tell us more about how the mind works than about huge, singular problems in the world. The effects of spicy foods, though reliable, are subtle. These studies show us how our brain connects physical experiences (spicy food) with psychological experiences (aggression). As a result of this architecture, exposure to spicy foods stirs up similar mental associations like aggression, which then prepare us to see the world through that lens.

And even though simply seeing pictures of spicy foods makes people quicker to solve puzzles with aggressive language, it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone who likes chile sauce is ready to fight. I say that as a person who likes chile sauce and is not ready to fight.

Nevertheless, before there was even evidence for it, there have been some in the world who take this link seriously. The Malaysian government, for example, has chosen to keep prisoners’ diets quite bland to reduce violent outbursts.

But you’re free to interpret these data how you’d like. As for me, I probably won’t shy away from the sauce[1]  Hot sauce, I mean., but I will be more mindful of how connected my thoughts are to my recent physical experiences.

Before wrapping up, though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least urge caution in thinking about results like this. Although these findings are consistent with other effects in the world of “embodied cognition,” there are a couple reasons to pause before over-hyping these results. Check out the footnote for details.[2]  The main thing is that they control for quite a few other variables, including “room brightness” and “general food preferences.” Although it might make sense to have all of these controls, it’s the kind of thing that people argue is a questionable practice. It is occasionally possible to take advantage of statistics and find “evidence” of something that’s not really there by controlling for a lot of unrelated variables. Who knows if that’s the case here, but take the results with a grain of salt…or a dash of Tabasco.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  Hot sauce, I mean.
2.  The main thing is that they control for quite a few other variables, including “room brightness” and “general food preferences.” Although it might make sense to have all of these controls, it’s the kind of thing that people argue is a questionable practice. It is occasionally possible to take advantage of statistics and find “evidence” of something that’s not really there by controlling for a lot of unrelated variables. Who knows if that’s the case here, but take the results with a grain of salt…or a dash of Tabasco.

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