Expectancy Effect & Neutral Food


The purpose of the present experiment was to examine how expectations influence cracker ratings on a scale of likeability. A large body of research shows that expectations affect food experiences (Wansink, 2004; Eertmans, Baeyens & Van den Bergh, 2001; Kahkonen & Tuorila, 1998). Participants were not aware that the primary interest of the study was how expectations influence cracker ratings. Participants were assigned to either a positive expectation group or a neutral expectation group. Participants in the positive expectation group received a positive verbal cue indicating that the crackers had recently been rated high in a national taste test. The neutral expectation group did not receive the information concerning the national taste test.   Participants were administered critical thinking tasks while consuming crackers. It was hypothesized that those in the positive expectation group would rate the crackers higher than those in the neutral expectation group. The results of the study did not support the hypothesis. There was no difference in how the groups rated the crackers.

People usually have expectations about how well they will enjoy a food before they decide to eat it. These expectations may be based on previous experiences, information about the product, and appearance of the product or other salient cues. Positive or negative expectations often determine whether or not the individual chooses to consume the food. People in the food industry often provide information or set up conditions to optimize the consumers experience and expectation of food. Advertisers are also aware of expectations and how they influence food choices. One of the primary objectives of advertisers is to present the food in a way that leads to the consumer having positive expectations of the food. A large body of research shows that expectations affect food experiences (Wansink, 2004; Eertmans, Baeyens & Van den Bergh, 2001; Kahkonen & Tuorila, 1998). Our taste and flavor likings are biased by our expectations and in many circumstances if you expect that you will like a food you probably will. However, expectation also works in the opposite direction; expect a food to taste unpleasant and it probably will (Wansink, 2006).

The area of focus in this study is how expectation affects food liking. Research shows expectation often plays a big role in the pleasure derived from food (Wansink, 2006; Eertmans, Baeyens, & Van den Bergh, 2001; Wansink, 2004).

In this paper previous research regarding expectations and food will be discussed by referring to four general categories: beliefs about labels, beliefs about food composition, price of food and food presentation.

Beliefs about labels

The study mentioned here reveals the strong influence that labeling can have on food preferences. Labeling may be influential across a variety of different contexts.

Yeomans et al. (2008) conducted a study that looked at expectations related to food flavor by using an unusual flavor of ice cream: smoked salmon. One group ate the ice cream from a dish labeled “Ice cream” and another group ate the ice cream from a dish labeled “Frozen savory mousse.” The experience of the food in the mouth generated strong dislike when labeled as ice-cream, but acceptance when labeled as frozen savory mousse. Labeling the food as ice-cream also resulted in stronger ratings of how salty and savory the food was than when labeled as a savory food. The individuals that ate the frozen savory mousse found the ice cream less salty and bitter, and found its overall flavor more pleasant.

Beliefs about food composition

Food composition plays a role in whether one likes a food or not. However, not only does food composition play a role, but also expectations about the composition may influence food liking.

Customers at a pub evaluated regular beer and a regular beer that contained a few drops of balsamic vinegar ”MIT brew”- (Lee, Frederick & Ariely, 2006). One group tasted the samples blind (not aware of the secret ingredient). A second group was informed of the secret ingredient before tasting. A third group learned of the secret ingredient immediately after tasting, but before indicating their preference. The results indicated the preference for the MIT brew was higher in the blind condition than in either of the two other conditions. However, the timing of the information mattered. Disclosure of the secret ingredient significantly reduced preference only when the disclosure preceded tasting, suggesting that disclosure influenced preferences by affecting the experience itself. The researchers concluded that preference for the MIT brew was influenced by disclosure of its contents, but only if disclosure preceded tasting, which suggests that expectations have a primary influence on the taste experience itself.

Price of food

Higher priced foods or drinks may be preferred to lower priced foods even when the ingredients of the lowered priced product are the same.

Goldstein et al. (2008) investigated the relationship between price and subjective appreciation of wines, when the price is not known.   A sample of more than 6,000 participants from 17 US blind tastings were compiled and examined.   Blind tastings help eliminate confounds such as price, and published expert ratings (both may contribute to expectations). The blind tastings followed a double blind protocol, in which neither the person serving the wine nor the person tasting the wine knew the type or price of wine. The tasters assigned an overall rating to the wine tasted, prior to discussing the tasting with the rest of the group. The prices of the wines used in the taste testing ranged from $1.65 to $150 per bottle. The main finding after examining the blind taste tests was that generally, individuals who are unaware of the price do not report higher ratings of more expensive wine. Actually, they enjoy more expensive wine a little less. However, in double blind taste tests, experts generally rate expensive wine higher than less expensive wine.   The pleasure derived from consuming wine depends on taste and smell, but it also depends on price and presentation.

Food presentation

Presentation has been shown to play a large role in the perception of food. When foods are presented in an appealing way, individuals may like the food more.

At a cafeteria in Urbana, Illinois, 175 people were given a free brownie dusted with powdered sugar (Wansink, 2006). They were told the brownie was a new dessert that may be added to the menu. They were asked how they liked the flavor and how much they would pay for it. All of the brownies were the same size and had the same ingredients. However, the brownies were served on a china plate, on a paper plate or on a paper napkin. Those who received the brownie on a china plate rated the brownie as excellent. The people eating the brownie from the paper plate rated the brownie as good. Those who were served the brownie on a napkin rated it as okay. Individuals eating from the china plate said they would pay an average of $1.27 for the brownie, while those eating from the paper plate said they would pay an average of 76 cents, and those eating from the napkin said they would pay an average of 53 cents.

Experimental Prediction

In the present study the relationship between positive expectation and food liking was examined . Does a positive expectation lead participants to rate foods as more likeable? It was hypothesized that participants in the positive expectation (verbal non-visual cue) group would rate the crackers higher than those in the neutral expectation (control condition) group, even though they would be consuming the same type of crackers.

Results & Discussion : Concise

To test the hypothesis that participants in the positive expectation group would rate the crackers higher in liking than those in the neutral expectation group an independent sample t-test was conducted. The results of the independent samples t-test did not show a significant difference between cracker ratings from those in the positive expectation group (M = 4.22, SD = .60), versus those in the neutral expectation group (M=4.00, SD=.52), t (44) =1.31, p > .05, d = .39. Thus, the hypothesis was not supported.

The findings in this study suggest that positive suggestions do not always lead to increased ratings of food. One possibility for explaining this finding is that participants in the positive expectation group actually did not have a positive expectation regarding the flavor of the crackers.

Another possibility for explaining the outcome of the study is the sensory properties of the food were inconsistent with the expectations. That is, participants in the positive expectation group expected the crackers to have a good flavor, but their expectations were disconfirmed when eating the crackers.

It is reasonable to suggest that if the sample had been larger there may have been a different outcome. The small time frame, of seven minutes, may have influenced the outcome. The type of food used in this study may place limitations on the outcome. Positive expectations may be hard to induce for a neutral food such as crackers.


References can be found at the link below for the complete research report. Read the full paper here:

Hale, J.P. (2012). Expectations Do Not Always Influence Food Liking. Online Theses and Dissertations. Paper 129.  

Jamie Hale