Frank’s RedHot, purveyor of hot sauce and, apparently, a seasonal syringe with which to pump your holiday meats full of hot sauce, recently released the results of a market research survey that linked a love of spicy food to certain personality traits. And while we wouldn’t trust a promotional press release to tell us anything about the human condition, the claims might actually have a basis in science.
The survey broke spiciness into three categories (hot, medium, and mild) and asked people to identify which spice level they like the best. From there, it analyzed what people in those self-reported brackets have to say about themselves more generally.
For example, 76% of respondents who like hot spicy food also enjoy trying new things; 66% are more content with their lives than other respondents; and 62% consider themselves attractive. Hot spicy lovers describe themselves as creative (54%), confident (51%), and adventurous (44%). Lovers of medium and mild spice levels, meanwhile, described themselves with more tepid language: calm, curious, empathetic, shy, and “consider themselves both a cat and a dog person.”
Formal research has been done into the correlation between personality traits and how much someone desires to eat spicy food. A 2013 study from researchers at the College of Agricultural Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University found a correlation between “sensation seeking” and “sensitivity to reward” personality traits and liking spicy foods. A later study by the same researchers found that “sensitivity to reward” was a stronger motivator in men and “sensation seeking” was a stronger motivator in women.
“These differences suggest that in men and women, there may be divergent mechanisms leading to the intake of spicy foods; specifically, men may respond more to extrinsic factors, while women may respond more to intrinsic factors,” the study said.
Alissa Nolden, a food scientist and assistant professor at UMass Amherst’s Department of Food Science, has done research into people’s perceptions of spicy food and the oral effect of capsaicin, the chemical in chili peppers that creates a burning sensation in the mouth. She likens a love of spicy food to a love of roller coasters.
“For some people, riding roller coasters is awesome,” Nolden tells The Takeout. “Some people will say, ‘I’m thrill-seeking, and I’m feeling good about this experience.’ If you put other people on a roller coaster, they might not have the same experience. It’s the same thing with spicy food.”
Nolden’s research has involved giving people capsaicin in water and asking people to rate the burning sensation that capsaicin gave them. In that experiment, the capsaicin wasn’t in food, meaning the results weren’t skewed by whether, for example, someone happens to enjoy the taste of buffalo sauce or curry. Though Nolden said capsaicin isn’t totally devoid of flavor sensation—it’s pretty bitter—the experiment focused solely on the burn itself.
“What was so fascinating was the difference in liking in spicy water—burning water,” she said. “There are a group of people who actually really liked a pretty high concentration. They enjoyed it.”
Nolden’s research found that frequent intake of chili peppers can lead to some desensitization of the effects of capsaicin. In other words, the more spicy food you eat, the more you have to eat to get the same thrill. It stands to reason that thrill-seeking personalities, therefore, would like hotter food.
“If we eat more of it, eat it more often, we need more of it to get the same burn response,” she said.
Something Nolden finds fascinating in the spicy food sphere is that in English, we only have a couple of words to describe spiciness: “spicy” and “hot.” She noted that in the Frank’s RedHot survey results infographic, 93% of respondents say they like “some heat” in their food. Nolden notes that such imprecise language could technically refer to the temperature at which the food is served.
“In the English language, we use ‘spicy’ and then ‘hot,’” she said. “Other languages have more than ten [words] to describe the spiciness. We don’t have a different word for wasabi versus chili peppers. Other cultures have words to describe these differences. So when I see that ‘93% prefer some level of heat,’ I do wonder what it means. Even ginger, if you have enough of it, can be described as stinging and warming.”
Nolden herself grew up thinking she didn’t like spicy food, because the only spicy (or “hot”) food she really knew was buffalo sauce, something she just doesn’t really like the taste of. Once she discovered that capsaicin-containing chilis could be incorporated into cuisines in other ways—for example, the way they’re used in Thai food—she realized she does like it.
“I like the flavors of the warming and burning, coupled with other balanced flavors,” she said. “When I eat spicy food, it is rewarding for me. For others it’s not.”
Not everything about our personalities can be explained by science, of course. For example, some people are dog people and others are cat people. Unless, of course, you’re both a cat and a dog person. And even the most adventurous person alive might find that—perish the thought!—they’re just not crazy about the flavor of Frank’s RedHot products.