I’ll never forget the one and only time my mom made quiche for dinner. I was in fourth grade, and she had proudly followed the recipe in “Joy of Cooking” to create an exciting gourmet treat. Naturally, my sister and I absolutely hated it, but mom made us clean our plates. Choking down that quiche (which I now love) is one of my most vivid childhood memories.
This scene, or some version of it, has been repeated countless in kitchens around the world as parents try to introduce new foods to kids who prefer the tried-and-true meals they’ve grown accustomed to. For some, it might be Brussels sprouts. For others, scalloped potatoes. And, of course, for many, it’s asparagus.
But a team led by Cara Laney claims to have found a way to make kids love asparagus — in their memories, after they’ve grown up, that is. How did they do it?
They started with 128 undergraduates at the University of California, Irvine. They were told they’d be taking a survey about food preferences and personality. First, everyone was asked about their “food history,” with 24 questions about particular foods — all these questions except one were only there to distract from the key question, which asked them to rate how likely it was that they “loved asparagus the first time they tried it” on a scale of 1 to 8.
After taking a couple of other questionnaires, again, to distract from the primary goal of the study, they were asked how likely they were to order each of 32 dishes from a hypothetical restaurant menu, again on a scale of 1 to 8. Again, asparagus was one of the dishes.
One week later, all the students were brought back and given a phony analysis of their responses to the previous week’s survey. Here’s the key to the study: as part of this analysis, half the students were told that their responses indicated they “loved to eat cooked asparagus” as a young child, while the other half were not told anything about asparagus.
Then everyone was given the original two food preference questionnaires again (one about how much they liked foods during childhood, and another about what items they were likely to order in a restaurant today). Here are their ratings for the “loved asparagus the first time you tried it” question:
So the students who had been told that they loved asparagus as children actually came to believe it to be true — they rated that statement as significantly more likely to be true than the group that hadn’t had the memory planted. So, on average, the researchers were successful in planting a false memory. But in fact these students could be divided into “believers,” who thought recalled a specific instance of enjoying asparagus as a child or at least were quite convinced this was a true memory, and “nonbelievers,” who did not. Did becoming a believer affect your taste for asparagus?
Believers actually rated themselves as significantly more likely to order asparagus in a restaurant compared to before the false memory was induced. For nonbelievers and those who had had no suggestion, there was no significant change.
In a separate experiment with a new group of students, the students actually rated photos of asparagus, and believers found them significantly more appetizing and less disgusting than the nonbelievers, and less disgusting than the control group did.
The authors say that this is one of the first times that a positive belief has been implanted as a false memory, and it demonstrates the power of false memory to potentially have and impact on attitudes. While it might not get your kids to eat their vegetables, it might be useful for promoting healthy eating in adults.
Laney, C., Morris, E.K., Bernstein, D.M., Wakefield, B.M., & Loftus, E.F. (2008). Asparagus, a love story: Healthier eating could be just a false memory away. Experimental Psychology, 55 (5), 291-300