Tasting something sour may encourage risky behavior

Sour tastes could be used to either promote or inhibit risk-taking behavior.

In a new study, researchers investigated how the five basic tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami) impact risk-taking behavior. Dr. Chi Thanh Vi and Dr. Marianna Obrist at the Sussex Computer Human Interaction Lab, University of Sussex,  asked 168 participants to pump up a computerized balloon, and with every click the balloon and the prize money went up. People could cash out at any time but if the balloon exploded they lost everything. Those who had tasted the sour drink clicked an average of 40 times, compared to around 20 to 30 times for those who tasted the other tastes.

ResearchGate: How did this study come about?

Chi Thanh Vi: We know that some humans are more likely to take risks than others. Taste is a dedicated warning system that helps people to make important decisions under risk like ingesting or rejecting a given food. Given the parallel between human decision making under risk and the unique properties of the gustatory system, an interaction between risk-taking and the sense of taste was expected.

RG: Can you tell us briefly what you discovered?

Marianna Obrist: We demonstrate for the first time that sour - amongst the five basic tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami) - promotes risk-taking. Based on a series of three experiments with 168 participants, we show that sour has the potential to modulate risk-taking behavior across countries (UK and Vietnam), across individual differences in risk-taking personalities and analytic versus intuitive styles of thinking.

RG: Did these results surprise you?

Chi Thanh Vi: In a way, yes. However, before running the experiment, we had a rough hypothesis about the effect of the basic tastes (particularly sweet, bitter, and sour) which was observed in the results.

RG: How did you develop the task to test this?

Chi Thanh Vi: We used the Balloon Analogue Risk-Taking (BART) - a measure of risk taking behavior where participants take part in a computer simulation to fill up a balloon with air. The more air in the balloon the more money the participants win until the balloon pops and they lose everything. Participants have the option to cash out at any time as each click sees the balloon increase in size along with the prize or it explodes, dependent on a randomized algorithm.

RG: Why do you think sour tastes may encourage risky behavior?

Marianna Obrist: In this work, we only reported our findings on the behavior level. We believe that further investigations can look at exactly what happens in the brain. It could be that by taking that first bite of something sour we are already exhibiting some risk-taking behavior to eat fruit which might not be quite right.

RG: If future research confirms this, what applications could your results have?

Chi Thanh Vi: We believe that our research can help build applications to help people modulate risk-taking and could encourage risk-averse people to take new opportunities and support a happier life. For example, people who are risk-averse (like people with anxiety disorders or depression) may benefit from a sour additive in their diet while professionals prone to taking risks under uncertainty (like fire-fighters, surgeons, and pilots) can benefit from reducing sour intake in their daily diet. For example, maybe pilots should avoid sour tastes before flights in bad weather.

Featured image courtesy of Peter Adermark.