Caffeine on the mind? Just seeing reminders of coffee can stimulate our brain

Summary: Exposure to subtle cues associated with coffee influence arousal and alertness.

Source: University of Toronto

Just looking at something that reminds us of coffee can cause our minds to become more alert and attentive, according to a new U of T study.

“Coffee is one of the most popular beverages and a lot is known about its physical effects,” says Sam Maglio, an associate professor in the Departments of Management at U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management.

“Much less is known about its psychological meaning — in other words, how even seeing reminders of it can influence how we think.”

The study, co-authored by Maglio and published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, looks at an effect called priming, through which exposure to even subtle cues can influence our thoughts and behavior.

“People often encounter coffee-related cues, or think about coffee, without actually ingesting it,” says Maglio, an expert on consumer behavior.

“We wanted to see if there was an association between coffee and arousal such that if we simply exposed people to coffee-related cues, their physiological arousal would increase, as it would if they had actually drank coffee.”

Arousal in psychology refers to how specific areas of the brain get activated into a state of being alert, awake and attentive. It can be triggered by a number of things, including our emotions, neurotransmitters in the brain, or the caffeinated beverages we consume.

In this case, the researchers, including Maglio and Eugene Chan, a former Ph.D. student at Rotman, wanted to explore how simply being exposed to things that remind us of coffee may have an effect on arousal.

A cup of coffee is shown with the froth in the shape of a brain.

They found that participants exposed to coffee-related cues perceived time as shorter and thought in more concrete, precise terms. The image is in the public domain.

Across four separate studies and using a mix of participants from Western and Eastern cultures, they compared coffee- and tea-related cues. They found that participants exposed to coffee-related cues perceived time as shorter and thought in more concrete, precise terms.

“People who experience physiological arousal – again, in this case as the result of priming and not drinking coffee itself – see the world in more specific, detailed terms,” says Maglio, whose past research has looked at how uncertainty can affect our perception of time.

“This has a number of implications for how people process information and make judgments and decisions.”

However, the effect was not as strong among participants who grew up in Eastern cultures. Maglio speculates that the association between coffee and arousal is not as strong in less coffee-dominated cultures.

“In North America, we have this image of a prototypical executive rushing off to an important meeting with a triple espresso in their hand. There’s this connection between drinking caffeine and arousal that may not exist in other cultures.”

Past U of T research has looked at the effect of other primed associations, notes Maglio. One study specifically found that merely looking at the McDonald’s logo may lessen our ability to slow down and savor pleasurable experiences in life.

He says the research may be of interest in better understanding a range of consumer-related behaviors, and for marketers in considering retail store locations.

“If you want walk-in customers who are thinking about their long-term future, a retail storefront next to David’s Tea may be ideal,” he says. “Just walking past it should reduce arousal and make them care less about immediate, short-term indulgences.”

Maglio says the next steps for the research will look at associations people have for different foods and beverages. Just thinking about energy drinks or red wine, for instance, could have very different effects on arousal.

About this psychology research article

Source:
University of Toronto
Media Contacts:
Don Campbell – University of Toronto
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Coffee cues elevate arousal and reduce level of construal” Eugene Y.Chan, and Sam J.Maglio. Consciousness and Cognition Volume 70, April 2019, Pages 57-69 doi:10.1016/j.concog.2019.02.007

Abstract

Coffee cues elevate arousal and reduce level of construal

Coffee and tea are two beverages commonly-consumed around the world. Therefore, there is much research regarding their physiological effects. However, less is known about their psychological meanings. Derived from a predicted lay association between coffee and arousal, we posit that exposure to coffee-related cues should increase arousal, even in the absence of actual ingestion, relative to exposure to tea-related cues. We further suggest that higher arousal levels should facilitate a concrete level of mental construal as conceptualized by Construal Level Theory. In four experiments, we find that coffee cues prompted participants to see temporal distances as shorter and to think in more concrete, precise terms. Both subjective and physiological arousal explain the effects. We situate our work in the literature that connects food and beverage to cognition or decision-making. We also discuss the applied relevance of our results as coffee and tea are among the most prevalent beverages globally.

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