If there’s no coffee snob around to scrutinize my behavior, I will add plenty of milk and sugar to any caffeinated beverage, be it a glorified cup of brown sludge or espresso brewed from gold-flecked grounds. I generally regard my coffee tastes to be childish, but it may be time to re-interpret my unrefined palate. My love for sweet swill may be proof positive I’m not a psychopath.
At least that’s how a new study, published in the journal Appetite, is being framed. Austrian psychologists analyzed personality tests and food taste surveys from 1000 people and found a link between enjoying bitter tastes — including that of black coffee — and assorted malevolent personality traits, with the strongest link to psychopathy.
Why might a predilection for pucker-inducing flavors be noteworthy? We are hard-wired to savor delicious flavors, as shown by research on newborns’ taste preferences. Sweetness tells us that food is calorie-dense and, thus, a good source of energy. Bitterness, on the other hand — in evolutionary theory — is the sensory equivalent of a poison warning. According to this Darwinian line of reasoning, enjoying unpleasant tastes runs counter to survival instinct.
Of course, non-biological factors interfere with this built-in protection against downing cyanide cocktails: culinary culture, food availability, weight concerns, intoxicating effects and mere exposure. In fact, many of those food-stuffs which encourage connoisseurship (e.g., coffee, alcohol, caviar, tartare) aren’t traditionally tasty. Yet we dedicate considerable money and effort to get our hands on these delicacies.
Admittedly, this study struck me as scientific clickbait on its face. But while the headline-friendly conclusion — “psychopaths take their joe black” — certainly skews in that direction, an emerging body of work is examining personality as a taste-affecting factor. The underlying question is compelling: Do seemingly reflex-driven sensory preferences say something about our emotional and social dispositions?
These study authors think they do.
Two groups of volunteers took personality tests, including the CAST, to indicate their levels of five hostile traits, including four that make up the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism and everyday sadism. On the CAST, participants rated the extent to which they agreed with certain statement, including:
“When making fun of someone, it is especially amusing if they realize what I’m doing.”
“I enjoy physically hurting people.”
“In professional car-racing, it’s the accidents that I enjoy most.”
Participants also rated their preference for a randomized list of various sweet, sour, salty and bitter foods.
Those who enjoyed bitter foods reported behavior and viewpoints reflecting psychopathy and everyday sadism. Researchers also found that people who relished bitter tastes reported low levels of agreeableness, a trait previously linked to sweet-food preference.
Food preferences are increasingly linked to various personality traits. Spice-ofiles, for example, tend to lack inhibition and seek out adventure. And according to a 2011 study, which directly influenced the research at hand, having a sweet tooth may be linked to prosocial behavior.
“Quite possibly,” the study authors wrote, “the modern Homo sapiens’ complex emotional system may be built on the evolutionary rudiment of affective responses to oral intake. Taste preferences may thus figure similarly prominently in the development of personality.”
Still, the next time I notice a black coffee drinker glowering at my heavy cream consumption, I’ll take a closer look. And maybe watch my back.