Love spicy food? Thank your personality

Do you savor spicy food? Do you crave capsaicin? Do you pop peppers like they were bonbons? Researchers at Penn State University have found that a person's love of spicy food may be dictated by personality traits more than any other factor.

Professor John Hayes, a food scientist and director of Penn State's Sensory Evaluation Center, and PhD candidate Nadia Byrnes — both professed lovers of spicy food — were interested in why some people seek out spicy food. Plenty of research has already been done on the subject, dating as far back as the '70s, showing connections to learned behaviour, cultural preference and even differences in how we each perceive taste or anatomical differences in our mouths. Personality was shown to play a large role as well, similar to how some people seek out thrill rides or gambling. Until now, though, no research had been done to determine how large that role is.

"We always assumed that liking drives intake — we eat what we like and we like what we eat. But no one had actually directly bothered to connect these personality traits of sensation seeking with intake of chili peppers," says Hayes.

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In this new research, Hayes and Byrnes examined the preference for spicy food in relation to four key personality traits: private body consciousness, sensation seeking, sensitivity to punishment and sensitivity to reward. 'Private body consciousness' is how sensitive someone typically is to the sensations of their own body, including heart beat, hunger pangs and muscle tenseness, as well as sensitivity to pain. 'Sensation seeking' is a person's desire for new and intense experiences and their willingness to take risks for those experiences. 'Sensitivity to punishment' determines a person's avoidance of pain and risk. 'Sensitivity to reward' is directly linked to the production of dopamine in our brain, and thus is linked to pleasure and arousal.

Participants in the study were rated on these four traits and were then given cups of water with higher and higher concentrations of capsaicin mixed into them. People who enjoyed the increasing intensity were found to rate high on sensation seeking and sensitivity to reward, but there was no relation found to body consciousness or sensitivity to punishment.

"We expected that subjects who reported liking the burn would eat more spicy food," says Byrnes, "and that's what we found. We also expected those who reported eating more would have lower burn intensity, but we didn't find any evidence of that."

"It's pretty clear from earlier work that it can't just be desensitization; there has to be some sort of affective shift because it's not just that it doesn't burn as badly, it's that you actually learn to like the burn." said Hayes.

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"That is, 'chili-heads' like the burn more, not just perceive it less," he added.