Restaurateurs apparently know what they’re doing when they offer “escargot” on a menu rather than “snails.” New research shows that people are more willing to eat foods that they find disgusting if those foods are presented in a foreign language.
That’s the conclusion of a recent set of studies co-authored by a UChicago postdoctoral scholar in psychology, which could help win acceptance for environmentally sustainable foods that many people are unwilling to try.
Americans and Europeans are generally averse to eating insects or artificial meat, for example. Likewise, drinking water made by purifying wastewater has been a tough sell. “In people’s minds, once in contact (with a disgusting entity), always in contact,” said Janet Geipel, a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Prof. Boaz Keysar and the lead author of the study published in Nature Sustainability. “No matter how good your technology is, it will not convince these people. So we need psychology to nudge sustainable consumption. And one nudge could be presenting sustainable-but-disgusting products in a foreign language.”
Geipel and her European collaborators were inspired by research, including work done by Keysar and his group, showing that encountering emotionally charged matters in a foreign language reduces people’s emotional reaction to them.
They did three separate studies, testing reactions to recycled wastewater, cookies made from mealworms and artificial meat. Participants were native speakers of German, Italian and Dutch who had learned either English or German as a second language. The participants read about the product either in their native tongue or their second language and were then asked if they would be willing to eat or drink it.
Of those who encountered the products in their native tongue, only about 18 percent said they would be willing to try either artificial meat or mealworm cookies. Forty percent ruled out the meat entirely, and almost 55 percent said an absolute “no” to the cookies. When presented with the products in their second language, however, only 25.8 percent completely ruled out the artificial meat, and 35.5 percent said “never” to the mealworm cookies.
Encountering the recycled wastewater in a foreign language increased participants’ willingness to give it a try by 12 percent. “I think the increase was maybe stronger for products that they don’t like to begin with,” said Geipel. “And artificial meat and insect-based foods are especially aversive to Europeans.”
The wastewater study also looked at actual consumption. Both groups of participants were asked how recently they drank something and were offered a glass of what was purportedly recycled wastewater (actually ordinary tap water). This time the effect of language was marginal, and was modulated by the participants’ thirst.
Geipel plans further work using a simple foreign-language label for the aversive foods rather than an entire description. If it works, such an intervention would be more widely applicable, as many people do not speak a foreign language. She and her colleagues feel that language interventions have potential for helping make some aversive sustainable foods more acceptable.
“You can use language to reduce feelings of disgust related to some products that are rejected by the population,” Geipel said. “A native tongue has a higher emotional resonance than a foreign language because it is used more often and in more emotional contexts. By using a foreign language you take away some of the emotionality attached to ‘insects’, and thus help override a barrier that prevents the consumption of insect-based food.”