Photos by David Williams

It's not just you, there's science behind it

Isaac Parham
March 06, 2018

Anyone who has worked in a shared office will know that people can get possessive over their favorite coffee cup. But it’s not just personal preference. Professor Charles Spence, an Oxford University academic and founding father of Gastrophysics — a nascent discipline that attempts to unpick the scientific and psychological factors that underpin flavor and eating habits — believes that forming an attachment to one particular cup is not a matter of habit but of taste. Drinking coffee from a favorite cup, he believes, actually improves its flavor.

In his recent book, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, Spence argues that drinking coffee from a favorite cup creates a personalized experience whereby drinkers may transfer feelings of ownership and familiarity to the contents (known by behavioral experts as “sensation transference”) or ascribe more value to it as a result of owning the cup (known as the “endowment effect), in turn improving its perceived taste.

“The funny thing is that when you quiz them people often feel almost embarrassed to admit they prefer their favourite mug, because at one level they believe it can’t change the taste, that they are somehow just being silly,” Spence writes. “And yet, as a gastrophysicist, I firmly believe that this form of personalization really does make a difference to how much we enjoy the experience—a subtle one, perhaps, but significant nonetheless.”

Marketing specialists Spence writes, have already started to use personalization as a tool, as shown by Starbucks’ policy of writing customers’ names on their cups and Coca-Cola labelling bottles with names.

“There have been a couple of informal experiments on this where people drink coffee from their favorite cup or someone else’s favorite cup, and it does taste better from your own,” Spence told me.

“This makes perfect sense from a gastrophysics perspective. It may be that personalized things taste better per se, or it could be that picking up your favorite cup may trigger pleasant memories.”

But what if the Chosen Cup were to fall and break? Or an upgrade was required? How should we go about unearthing a new favorite mug?

“I would avoid pale blue cups for sure; one wants to use color contrast between coffee and the inside of the cup to make milky coffee look its best.

“The heavier the better too, as we normally place more value in heavier cups. And perhaps a cup without a handle so we feel more warmth from the drink, which research shows makes the world around us look warmer.”

So don’t be shy: use your favorite mug. It really will make your morning better.

 

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