Choosing Sweets

Predicting Candy Preferences: It’s All About the Experience

The Problem

The notorious ‘sweet tooth’ – despite health sources urging us to avoid them, we still like sweets. We know we shouldn’t, but what’s better than chocolate melting in your mouth? Humans have evolved to crave sugar, and it seems each of us craves a different way to get this sugar fix. The craving is not only for the taste and calories, but the brain motivates us to consume sweets by making the entire ceremony of eating rewarding.  

Eating candy is a joyful experience, but articulating why we like one candy over another can be difficult. Candy consumption is also an interesting experience because it involves most senses including touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight.  Immersion Neuroscience designed a study to map out the entire candy consumption experience: opening the package, pulling out the candy, picking it up, putting it in the mouth, chewing it, and experiencing the taste. We specifically wanted to see if our neural measures of immersion during this experience would predict people’s candy preferences (intent to purchase in the future).

Study

Nine candies were supplied by the American Licorice Company to be included in the study (Red Vines Original, Licorice, Grape; Sour Punch Bites Apple; Sour Punch Blue Raspberry Straws; Sour Punch Strawberry Straws; Fruit Vines Bites Strawberry; and Rollin’ Red Candy Super Ropes, and Hershey’s Kisses).

Volunteers watched while each candy package was opened in front of them. After each package opening, volunteers were invited to take a piece of candy out of the wrapper, place it in their mouths, and chew it slowly, holding it in their mouths for 60 seconds. We collected neurologic immersion data throughout this experience. After tasting the candy, participants could eat or spit out the candy in trashcans provided.  Volunteers then relaxed for 60 seconds while we continued to measure their physiologic responses to the candy’s taste. Then, participants were given a cracker and some water to cleanse their palates before tasting the next candy. After each tasting, participants were asked if they would purchase the candy they had just tasted. Data were collected on 10 people ages 20-55, both males and females.

Results

#1 The anticipation of candy can be better than the experience itself. Immersion was almost 50% higher when people watched the candy being unwrapped and picked it up to eat it compared to when they tasted the candy. Our analysis confirmed by a large number of neuroscience studies showing the importance of reward anticipation in animals and humans. In other words, the prospect of a reward is a reward in and of itself.

#2 Immersion predicts candy preference. We estimated a statistical model using immersion during the entire candy experience to predict intent to purchase.  Average immersion was a statistically significant predictor of intent to purchase, while no self-report variables were significant (e.g., candy familiarity) besides how pleasant the candy tasted. Impressively for such a small sample size, immersion accurately predicted purchase intent with 78% accuracy. This shows how closely immersion in an experience tracks choice preferences.

#3 Chocolate beats licorice. So, which candy was most loved? By a landslide, the winner was Hershey’s Kisses.  Kisses were rated as tastiest, showing a 67% higher immersion score than all other candies, and were nearly always swallowed rather than spat out after tasting. When volunteers were offered free candy to take home, Kisses were taken twice as often as the second most popular choice, Red Vines.  

Key Take-Aways:

  1. Immersion predicts candy preferences above self-report measures and does so with high accuracy.
  2. Choosing to eat candy and other foods starts with anticipation.  Food manufacturers should make the anticipatory experience multisensory, using sights, sounds, touch, and smells to enhance immersion.
  3. Raising immersion during the anticipation of food consumption will enhance consumer enjoyment and increase preference and future consumption.

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