events psychology

The psychology of coffee

I do not do research on why people have a favourite coffee mug. I do research on fundamental mechanisms of learning and decision making, and how they are built into our brains. I was on the Today programme discussing the psychology of coffee last week and I mentioned favourite mugs (you can listen to what I said here, or read it in this Telegraph article which quotes me from that programme). I was asked to be on the Today programme because of an article I wrote in 2003, Psychology in the Coffee Shop. This was a light review and opinion piece about all the ways in which psychological theory intersects with the experience of drinking a cup of coffee. It is this article that comes up as the first hit if you google “psychology” and “coffee”.

This is my opinion, briefly, on favourite mugs: coffee and tea contain caffeine, which promotes dopamine release. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger in the brain, known to be intimately connected with learning and reward. The dopamine release brought about by a caffeinated drink hacks our natural learning mechanisms, causing them to seek to identify and repeat whatever is consistently associated with that dopamine release. This is why rituals, such as favourite coffee mugs, develop.

Before appearing on the Today programme I did ask myself if I should really be speaking to the media about something which is really no more than an entertaining opinion. I decided I should, partly because my research does cover the wider topics of learning and the development of preferences, partly because although it is just an opinion it is my professional, theory-motivated, opinion as a psychologist, and partly because I wanted my grandmother to be able to listen to me on radio 4.

I’ve been surprised by how much interest there is in the “why you have a favourite mug” aspect of what I’ve said. Several people have got in touch to ask about “my research into how coffee tastes out of favourite mugs”, or to find out how I “proved that coffee tastes better from your favourite mug”.
I have done no research into whether coffee does or does not taste better in your favourite mug. I am taking this as an accepted fact, for which I have offered a theoretical explanation. I regard the taste of the coffee from a favourite mug as something people can verify for themselves, without needing a psychologist to tell them. We all know that the drink is chemically the same from whatever mug it is served in, but yet people develop preferences. This is because taste and enjoyment are not merely about objective measurements, such as temperature, chemical composition and whatnot, but about psychological factors as well, such as the history of learning experiences that each individual has had.

Arguably, it might be something of a waste of public money if I spent my professional life asking people about their favourite coffee mugs. It is not clear that things such as this are interesting in themselves, or that anyone needs to have their choice of beverage receptacle validated by the latest research in psychological science. Despite the impression formed by some in the media, this is not what psychologists do. We investigate the fundamental principles of the operation of the mind, how they are played out in behaviour and how they are based in the brain. Sometimes we even make some progress in our understanding, and then are in the position to give a deeper perspective on some phenomenon with which everyone is familiar. This, I hope, is the case with the favourite coffee mug example.

12 replies on “The psychology of coffee”

The fickle public. They want you to have done a batch of experiments proving your cup theory yet they probably want to reserve the right to suggest that such research is a waste of money. I think you’ve got the balance just right.

“Dr Tom Stafford, psychologist from Sheffield University, says a person’s brain is trained to believe the daily ritual of making coffee or tea should be done in a certain way in order to derive maximum enjoyment.” – The Telegraph

Isn’t it funny how this completely fails to represent what you said?

Tim Harford writes about the position of coffee stands in London stations, and connects it to Ricardo’s thinking on land prices. No-one’s directly studied london coffee shop prices – and I personally think it’s absolutely fine that Tim is using un-peer-reviewed examples. They’re great hooks for him to then go on and show some underlying dynamic – or as you say, a “deeper perspective on some phenomenon with which everyone is familiar.”

I don’t see why you should be so worried doing the same thing with coffee mugs, or indeed emails: they’re both great subjects for illustrating ideas that – like Harford’s take on economics – people might not know underlie much of their behaviour. Use the coffee mug to lead on to the peer-reviewed stuff. Which is to say, actually, you do kinda do research on why people have favourite coffee mugs too. Use the idea. Do a Harford. (What apart from coffee and emails though?)

not just the telegraph – google ‘favourite coffee mug’ and follow the news link attached to the telegraph article – the study that you and your team have done to prove this has appeared in:

Sindh Today
UPI (motto: 100 years of journalistic excellence)
the Express
the daily star
the sun
and red orbit

: )

Next he’ll be big in Japan ! This is hilarious. Tom makes a lame joke on the radio and hey presto, next thing you know he’s provoked a major shift in the funding of US research programmes – we will not allow a coffee gap ! I think the research team at Sheffield University has unwittingly proven that quantum physics apply to psychology.

The part that really kills me is the concluding observation that 65% of Brits have a fave mug. I bet that 99% of the Chinese who read this think “just like dogs !”

The public policy question is of course how the Chinese lay hands on the ultra-secret results of the Sheffield University research team, I wonder ? This is industrial spying 2.0: they have your results before you’ve even started. Damn chinamen !

Very interesting post.

One point about favourite mugs – I like to drink tea from a particular mug, but coffee from any mug, as I take milk in tea but not in coffee.

Tea changes colour when milk is added, obviously, and I find the easiest way to know how much milk to add (and also how strongly the tea has been brewed) is by its colour – using the same mug provides a consistent background against which to measure the colour of the tea.

Also, while the chemical nature of the drink is (probably) the same in any mug, certain mugs are better at retaining the maximum amount of heat for the maximum amount of time!

It isn’t about the comparative taste of the coffee (or tea) so much as the peripheral sensual/aesthetic pleasures of a vessel that looks and feels appealing. And what about the coffee mug in the workplace as a projection of personality (either who you are or who you would like to be)?

I’m not claiming that no other factors are involved, I’m just offering a claim as to what the most important one is

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