TIME

You Think Food Tastes Better If It’s Expensive

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Restaurant goers who pay more at restaurant buffets think the food is tastier than the same food offered at a lower cost

We’re pretty shallow when it comes to food.

I don’t just mean our predilections for organic food and fancy coconut water. A new study shows that people change their perceptions on how food tastes based on how much it costs.

The researchers from Cornell University went to an Italian buffet in upstate New York and studied the dining habits of 139 customers when the researchers manipulated the prices of the all-you-can-eat buffet. The customers were offered the buffet at either $4 or $8, and were asked to access their dining experience by rating the food, restaurant, and their first, middle and last taste of the food based on a nine-point scale. The customers who paid for the $8 buffet enjoyed their food 11% more than the customers who ate the $4 buffet.

Not only that, but people who paid for the cheaper buffet were more likely to report they felt like they overate and felt more guilty about the meal. But both groups actually ate the same amount of food. “We were fascinated to find that pricing has little impact on how much one eats, but a huge impact on how you interpret the experience,” said study author Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior, in a statement.

The researchers didn’t draw conclusions for why people enjoyed their food more when it was pricer, but it’s rather intuitive: We tend to associate cost with quality. But the findings reveal that small tweaks to a dining experience can change how people perceive their meals. Other research from from Cornell University has shown that people who eat in dim lighting consume 175 less calories than people who eat in brightly lit areas, and they think the food tastes better. The researchers think that perhaps people associate a dimly lit dinner with a more relaxed and slower eating experience.

The new research was presented at the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting this week.

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