Paul Rozin on Music, Food, and Sex

paul rozin

I’m not sure how it’s possible that until yesterday I had never seen Paul Rozin speak. However it happened, I corrected a huge mistake by going to see him give an invited address at the Midwestern Psychological Association meeting in Chicago titled, The Aesthetics and Pleasures of Temporal Sequences. The talk spanned far more than that topic, but as Rozin’s research predicts, it was made extremely memorable by ending with a bang.

If you don’t know Rozin’s work you should absolutely check it out. Among many other things, his work helps us understand how disgust and morality are contagious (people don’t want to drink out of a sterilized glass if they know there’s been a cockroach in it (PDF), and won’t wear a sweater that had been owned by Hitler), how the process of moralization (PDF) works (how preferences become values), and why people come to consider some land to be sacred (PDF).

The research is not only interesting psychologically, it also has important real world implications. For example, Rozin is helping to figure out how to encourage people to overcome their disgust with drinking purified sewer water in regions facing water shortages, and to become more comfortable supplementing their diet with nutrition-rich insects. I’m still trying to decide how I would feel about a delicious-looking chocolate chip cookie made using 2% ant flour (given that, for cookies, I’m very liberal with the 3-second rule, I’m guessing I’d be ok with it).

Rozin is an extremely endearing iconoclast with as many interesting, meaningful, and important ideas about human psychology and behavior as anyone I can think of. He has very little patience for the rules that most psychologists fall in line with, which helps him to be incredibly generative, but often underappreciated. This works out fine for me as a rapt spectator, but may sometimes be more problematic for a graduate student who desperately needs publications.

In yesterday’s talk Rozin illustrated how fads come to dominate psychological research, which has the consequence of leaving huge swathes of psychology underexplored. He also commented on the state of publishing in the field, concluding that pre-publication peer review may not, on balance, be worth the costs it imposes, preferring open access publishing instead (putting him on the same page as a growing number of reform-minded researchers). He also noted, provocatively, that while there’s nothing wrong with hypothesis-based research, some of the great discoveries in science did not start with a clear hypothesis. Sometimes, he argued, journals should be far more liberal about publishing the mere existence of an interesting effect, even when it doesn’t yet have a good explanation, in order to let others take a shot at providing one.

Noma's live ants. Photo: Carl Reinholdtzon Belfrage
Noma's live ants. Photo: Carl Reinholdtzon Belfrage

For me, though, the best part of the talk was when Rozin turned his attention back to the original theme, discussing how the sequences in which we experience things like food and music can have a profound effect on how we enjoy them. Unlike most academic talks, Rozin treated his audience to a photographic tour of incredible meals he had enjoyed at cutting edge restaurants around the world, including Denmark’s Noma and Spain’s El Bulli. On the menu: live ants, cantaloupe caviar, and sushi accompanied by an aerosolized ginger mouth spray.

Rozin’s research, building on Danny Kahneman and colleagues’ work on the peak-end rule (PDF) and duration neglect (PDF), suggests that Americans’ food preferences are not well suited to creating optimal memories of dining experiences. Unlike many other nations, Americans' favorite foods tend to come in large portions in the middle of meals as a main course. Rozin finds (PDF), however, that people generally best remember the first and last things they eat and that, in retrospect, they are surprisingly insensitive to the amount of their favorite food that they actually consume.

Rozin also shared some fascinating ideas and findings about the importance interruptions. In one line of work, done in collaboration with Brian Wansink, Rozin finds that mindless eating can be cut dramatically by a simple interruption. People who are eating potato chips out of a tube eat half as many chips when every tenth chip is dyed red (PDF).

Rozin also described work on a different aspect of interruptions that he did in collaboration with his son, Alexander Rozin, a music theorist (with a background in astrophysics!). Rozin noted that symphonies have an intermission, thereby dividing the audience’s experience into two parts and providing them with twice as many opportunities to experience a memorable beginning and end. Bringing us back to food, he explained how at El Bulli, half way through their 34-course meal, his party, that had initially been seated outdoors, was moved inside. It made me wonder whether something as simple as changing the tablecloth, or asking people to change their seats, might be enough to create a similarly powerful interruption.

If the talk had ended there I would have left with the memory of a great experience. But in keeping with his own advice, the session ended on a high note in the question and answer period. A man in the front row raised his hand and wondered whether, like meals and symphonies, our experience of sex should be thought of in a similar way because it’s also an experience that ends with a bang. Before Rozin could answer, though, a woman seated behind me interjected dejectedly: “Sometimes.”

In case you've never had a chance to see Rozin speak either, here he is addressing the MAD symposium, the conference organized by Noma chef Rene Redzepi.