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Health Fusion: How a chocolate chip cookie reveals the power of negativity

Can the label "consumer complaint" on a chocolate chip cookie sway how people think it tastes? In this episode of NewsMD's "Health Fusion," Viv Williams explores a study that highlights the power of negativity in people's food preferences.

Chocolate chip cookie
Labeling can influence how a chocolate cookie tastes
Viv Williams

ROCHESTER — A while back I wrote a column on the power of suggestion. In that story, I described an event from my childhood that's become a family classic — the day my sister set Thanksgiving on fire.

The story goes ... my mom told us not to touch the lit candles on her impeccably set Thanksgiving table. But that suggestion, of course, compelled my sister to do the opposite. She reached out, touched a candle, knocked it over and in an instant, the table was ablaze (the adults acted quickly to save the meal by extinguishing the flames, removing charred napkins and covering the burn hole in the table cloth).

I thought of that story the minute I read about the new chocolate chip cookie taste test study from The Ohio State University. Researchers there explored the power of suggestion — in particular, the power of negative suggestion — in regards to how people think food tastes.

For the study, they labeled two identical chocolate chip cookies from the same package differently. One was labeled "customer complaint" and the other was labeled "new and improved." Then they asked a group of taste testers to try the two cookies and judge each on likability, freshness and a range of other qualities. They also performed the same test with crackers.

The cookies labeled "customer complaint" received lower ratings than the cookies labeled "new and improved."


“We had both negative and positive bias — but the negative bias was much bigger. That negative context had more impact than saying ‘new and improved’ had on generating better ratings,” said Christopher Simons, associate professor of sensory science at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

Whatever you do, don't think about the aroma of a roasting turkey or the bright tang of bite a of cranberry sauce. I bet, in your head, you just smelled and tasted those Thanksgiving favorites, right? Thus is the power of suggestion. In this "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams explores the power of suggestion's ability to change behavior and even heal. And she explains how it resulted in broken china, laughter and a Thanksgiving table that caught on fire.

“On one hand, it’s not surprising. On the other hand, the degree of the impact was really surprising,” Simons said.

He says this could be a lesson here for product developers. Rather than optimizing positive attributes for a new product idea, perhaps there would be value in teasing out what customers perceive as negative and adjusting accordingly.

The research is published in the journal Food Quality and Science.

Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com . Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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