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Present someone with an unidentifiable food and the first question they will ask is “What is this?” This especially happens at parties with plates of indistinguishable hors d’oeuvres and buffets with trays of unfamiliar food devoid of any description. It is the unusual person who will sample a novel victual without any foreknowledge. I do not speak to individuals harboring food allergies or some other medical restriction who require forewarning or else risk a dangerous reaction. This exception aside, the average human nevertheless maintains an inherent dread of eating something unknown.
Even though I share this intrinsic fear, I nevertheless find it curious, and it’s underpinnings even more arcane. I doubt it is rampant paranoia. I’m sure most of us don’t expect our host to slip something deadly or harmful into the indiscernible appetizers. Rather, I suspect we want to know up front what we are devouring to prevent eating something we don’t like. What we fear is the adverse gustatory reaction and/or the psychological aversiveness of consuming a food we find, shall we say, distasteful. It may be an item we honestly don’t care for or it may be something we “think” we don’t like. Unusual foods, especially foods we have never tried before routinely fall into this latter category.
Either way, once an objectionable mindset about a particular food is established, our expectations can inhibit us from enjoying something we might have relished otherwise. The negative expectation in and of itself can cause us to dislike something as opposed to the actual reality of our palate. In essence, a gustatory self-fulfilling prophecy is born. Consider the following example.
One day my parents were coming over for dinner. I opted for Caesar salad and asked my dad if he liked romaine lettuce. He firmly asserted that he “only likes iceberg lettuce.” Nevertheless I made a traditional Caesar salad with romaine and served it to him, (he doesn’t know which lettuce is which). He wolfed down his entire bowl of salad with obvious delight and then proceeded to commend me for it. The reality of the situation, (the actual lettuce), had nothing to do with his initial resistance. His expectation of romaine lettuce, (and whatever preconceptions are embodied in that expectation), is what got in the way. By bypassing his thinking, I was able to determine whether he had a genuine antipathy for romaine, which obviously he didn’t.
The point is we hold preconceived notions about certain foods. These ideas shape our expectations which in turn influence our amenability to them.
This postulate has held up to scientific scrutiny. In his book “Predictably Irrational,” Duke University professor Dan Ariely performed a series of experiments testing how our expectations influence our point of view, and for the purposes of the present discussion, our appraisal of food and drink. A “beer tasting” was held at one of the pubs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hundreds of students were offered one of two beers, either traditional Budweiser, or the “MIT brew” which was simply Budweiser with balsamic vinegar added to it, (two drops per ounce of beer to be exact). They were then asked which one they prefer. The subjects were completely unaware of the brand or the constituents of the beers. When blind tasting the two samples, most of the students chose the beer with the balsamic vinegar. Then the experiment was repeated but this time, the students were told beforehand what the two mystery brews were. Amazingly, an overwhelming number of them selected the traditional Budweiser. Two conclusions are resoundingly clear. First, the subjects’ expectations played a role in their appraisal of the beer and secondly, their expectations were wrong. The seemingly repugnant concept of adding vinegar to beer is what prevented them from liking it, not the vinegar itself.
Of course this process has broader implications than which beer you will drink or what salad you will eat. Our expectations, fueled by our predetermined notions, can affect a host of venues. What people you will associate with, where you will live, where you work, and many other choices, can all be influenced by your expectations which possibly can be mistaken. However, individuals often negotiate their life to be in unison with their expectations, thus reconfirming them. We’ve all met people who will not try a new food because they don’t like it, even though they’ve never tried it. Their expectation that they won’t like it is so strong that it prohibits them from even testing its validity. Hence, the aforementioned self-fulfilling prophecy maintains the expectation.
Problems arise when our expectations are discordant with reality. Inaccurate expectations only serve to limit our options and possibilities. True to my hedonistic orientation, I espouse that limiting our choices means fewer venues for potential pleasure. I am of the belief that life is hard enough. There are enough reality based unpleasantries to confront us without having to erect more barriers to enjoying ourselves. Sadly, and perhaps cynically speaking, humans do harbor a proclivity for being self-defeating.
It is an inherent facet of human existence that we must strive to attain that which is desirable. Rarely do good things fall into our laps, and even when they do, that doesn't mean we are capable of receiving them. Usually we must overcome external and more importantly internal barriers, in order to open ourselves up to the world. Some people choose to forego the difficulty of change and condemn themselves to the prisons of their own self-imposed limitations. As the Eagles sang in their song "Already Gone": "So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key."
Sometimes we can unlock our chains. I’ll bet you can think of foods that you abhorred as a child that you now eat. As we grow and mature our palates expand and we become naturally more receptive to varying taste sensations. This implies that somehow, some way, we transcended previously established negative expectations about certain foods.
Food is one of the great pleasures of life, or at least should be. Do you maintain irrational notions that curtail your enjoyment of food? And can you rise above them? That depends. What do you expect?