Fall is here and that means one thing…Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is Back! Have you ever wondered why this annual tradition seems to be such a big deal to the general populace? Sure, the pumpkin spice latte (PSL) is delicious, but how excited should one get about a beverage? It may be that some of the PSL-mania stems from how the drink makes us feel rather than how it tastes.
Relationship science could argue that the pumpkin spice lattes speak to consumers on a number of unconscious levels. In a pretty fascinating previous post, we learned that people who held a warm beverage rated others more positively, particularly as warmer in an interpersonal sense, than those who held a cold beverage (see here).1 So perhaps we desire the delectable drink because it makes us feel rosier towards those around us.
Similarly, psychological research attests to the power that scarcity has to make us want something that isn’t always readily available (see here).2 In fact, scarcity is one (and perhaps the only) thing that Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte and the McRib have in common. Their makers deliberately release them for a limited time to take advantage of people’s natural tendency towards reactance (wanting what we can’t have).
However, I think some of the allure of the pumpkin spice latte may also be from associations people have created between the caffeinated indulgence and their own personal relationships. A brilliantly written article by a friend and colleague, Dr. Jordan Troisi, examined why people are so comforted by “comfort foods.” As it turns out, when people consume these foods they feel a sense of connection that actually bolsters belongingness and can alleviate loneliness.3 This work showed that people often associate “comfort foods” to social comforts, like that of a family tradition or a pleasant reminder from the past. It could be that consumers have built associations with pumpkin spice lattes that remind them of a happier time.
Whatever your reason, the season of pumpkin spice is upon us, so indulge and enjoy!
1Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322, 606-607.
2Pennebaker, J., Dyer, M., Caulkins, R., Litowitz, D., Ackreman, P. L., Anderson, D. B., & McGraw, K. M. (1979). Don’t the girls get prettier at closing time: A country and western application to psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5, 122-125.
3Troisi, J. D. & Gabriel, S. (2011). Chicken soup really is good for the soul: “Comfort food” fulfills the need to belong. Psychological Science, 22, 747-753.
Dr. Sadie Leder-Elder – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder-Elder’s research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.