Taste aversion is a common phenomenon in human beings. Most people are averse of food of one kind or the other, which is sometimes confused with allergy. If a person claims that he can eat cheese but is allergic to milk, it is mostly likely the case of taste aversion. Taste aversion is aversion to certain foods, in human beings and animals, due to a past illness experienced with similar food. It is an interesting topic of discussion, in the field of psychology, as this form of conditioning defies more than one rule of classic conditioning. The objective of this paper is to understand the concept of taste aversion, the psychological process behind it, its history and its application.
The paper is divided into four main sections. The first section of the paper defines taste aversion. The second section mentions its historical background. The third section explains the psychological process associated with this phenomenon. The fourth section of the paper discusses the practical application of this phenomenon in real life situations. The fifth section concludes the paper.
Definition of Taste Aversion
Taste aversion is more related to brain than body. If one likes cheese, but claims to be allergic to milk, it is more likely a mental conditioning. If a person enjoys feasting on a dessert today and finds it repulsive tomorrow, it is again likely to be a brain induced response. If a person hates the smell of coffee as it is bitter, but likes indulging on dark chocolates, it is a brain related problem. In all these cases, taste aversion is triggered by brain and not body.
Fleming (2013) aptly compares a taste aversion with a childhood scar that is extremely personal and often associated with a backstory. Like a childhood scar, taste aversion is also related to an unpleasant experience in the past. The unpleasant experience is the physical illness that a person faced after eating a particular food, even though the food is not responsible for the illness. To avoid such unpleasant physical endurance in future, the mind works a defence or coping mechanism for itself by rejecting the food that caused the illness. This rejection or aversion of food of certain taste and smell is known as taste aversion. It is caused by a mental conditioning process that triggers an alarm in human mind when they are exposed to food that once made them ill. In other words, taste aversion is the tendency to avoid or repel certain food that made people sick in the past. Unlike an allergy, the food consumed is coincident but unrelated to the sickness caused in a taste aversion.
Historical Backdrop of Taste Aversion
The origin of the concept of taste aversion dates back to the 1950s. The phenomenon of taste aversion was first observed in rats during radiological experiments conducted by John Garcia and is team in the 1950s. Garcia found a peculiar behaviour in rats during the experiment. He found that rats repelled food that was provided to them at the time of irradiation. He explained this behaviour as conditional aversion of certain foods in rats due to ill-effects of the radiation during the same period. This phenomenon came to be known as Garcia effect.
Later, in 1978, an experiment on human beings also supported this concept of taste aversion. Bernstein found that patients of chemotherapy developed taste aversion for certain foods that they encountered during the radiation sessions (Chance, 2008). Explaining this phenomenon, Bernstein suggested that conditioning plays an important role in creating food aversion in patients. Numerous experiments have been conducted after that and taste aversion has been found existent in human beings and animals both.
Understanding the Mechanism behind Taste Aversion
The phenomenon of taste aversion can be explained using classical conditioning theory and biological preparedness concept.
Taste Aversion and Classical Conditioning
The phenomenon of taste aversion can be understood using the stimulus-response theory of classical conditioning. In this case, food is a neutral stimulus. According to (Cherry, 2015), when food is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (a medical condition or ailment), it reacts with an unconditional response (a feeling of sickness). In a similar situation later, food is no more a neutral stimulus, but a conditioned stimulus. The conditioned response to the food stimulus is avoiding the food that caused a feeling of sickness earlier.
It is interesting to know that while taste aversion follows the mechanism of classic conditioning, it defies certain basic rules of this mechanism. First, unlike the general principals of classic conditioning, conditioning in taste aversion occurs after single-pairing alone. Second, in contrast to classic conditioning, the time span between neutral stimulus and unconditioned stimulus in taste aversion amounts to several hours (Cherry, 2015).
Taste Aversion and Biological Preparedness
The phenomenon of taste aversion can also be explained in terms of survival mechanism in living beings. The survival mechanism or the biological preparedness works, consciously or unconsciously, to ensure that the same unpleasant experience or illness is not encountered in future. In an attempt to survive, the mind prepares the body to repel the food that caused the unpleasantness in the past. It is similar to the way body reacts to foods that cause allergy. According to Chance (2008), a person who is allergic to pollen can sneeze endlessly even at sight of a plastic rose.
Chang (2011) explains the evolutionary basis of taste aversion. He explains the concept of taste aversion and biological preparedness in animals. He deliberates that different species use different sense organs to identify cues with respect to a certain food. But, irrespective of how the cues are received, taste aversion behaviour is witnessed in most of the species and organisms. It emerges as one of the tools to adapt against environmental changes through the process of evolution. Thus, there is psychological as well as an evolutionary basis of taste aversion phenomenon.
Biological preparedness also lies in the fact that people tend to develop a preference for the foods that they are constantly exposed to. Inclusion of any new food in their diet is treated with suspicion. Fleming (2013) explains how familiarity increases preference when it comes to food. The extent of biological preparedness also influences acceptability of a food. In the state of illness, the mood is such that acceptability of a novel food reduces as it is treated with suspicion. When a person is happy, he or she is more open to try new tastes.
Application of the Concept of Taste Aversion
The knowledge of the concept of taste aversion can be applied in real life to solve a number of practical problems. Some practical applications of the concept of taste aversion are covered in this section of the paper.
Cure Alcoholism or Drug Abuse and Overcome Bad Habits
Taste aversion can be used as a technique to cure people of alcoholism and drug abuse. In this treatment, alcohol or drug acts as a neutral stimulus to begin with. When this neutral stimulus pairs with an administered unconditioned stimulus (an illness causing agent), the unconditioned response is a feeling of sickness. Next time, when the same person binges, the alcohol or drug becomes a conditioned stimulus that leads to a conditioned response of avoiding alcohol or drug. This helps people who are addicted to alcohol or drug abuse in overcoming their addiction. Taste aversion can also be used as a tool in overcoming bad habits in human beings, like nail biting and overindulging. The procedure used will be similar to that of curing alcoholism. According to Chang (2011), in aversion therapy, an unpleasant response is paired with the bad habit to wean the patient off of the detrimental behaviour through classical conditioning.
Control Damages against Pests
Taste aversion technique can be used in animals to control damages caused by them. According to O’Donnell, Webb and Shine (2010), ecological impact of invasive species can be reduced using taste aversion technique. Poultry farmers face problem of crow infestation. The crows eat the poultry eggs causing losses to farmers. Behaviour of crows can be conditioned by baiting them with sickness-inducing agents in sample eggs. The conditioned behaviour of crows will be aversion of eggs as a food. This will save the farmer of future damages.
Another example of using taste aversion technique to control damages to farm sheep from coyote attacks. Coyote attacks kills sheep and cause financial losses to farmers. In an attempt to condition coyotes against attacking sheep, a poisoned bait of mutton was offered to them. On eating the poisoned mutton or sheep meat, the coyotes developed aversion to this kind of meat. A change was witnessed in the behaviour of the coyotes that stopped hunting sheep for meat in future. Thus, taste aversion emerges as an effective environment friendly technique in addressing pest infestation and attacks.
Deciding Diet for Patients Undergoing Irradiation
It has been observed that during chemotherapy sessions, the patients developed aversion to the food that they were exposed at that moment. So, it is important for doctors to plan the diet of patients such that they are not exposed to nutritious food during the irradiation sessions. This will ensure that patients don’t get repelled to healthy food.
Taste aversion is a phenomenon that affects humans as well as other living beings. It has both psychological and evolutionary basis. The psychological basis of taste aversion in the mechanism of classical conditioning that leads to the aversion. The evolutionary basis of taste aversion encompasses the biological preparedness of living beings for the purpose of survival.
Aversion therapies can be used in human beings to cure addictions and overcome bad habits. In animals, it can be used to save financial losses for farmers by conditioning behaviour of animals in such a manner that they do not cause these damages.
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Chang, Liu (2011). The Garcia Effect: A Tailored Taste for Survival. Berkeley Scientific Journal, 16 (1), 1-3. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2br2k4rv
Chance, Paul (2008). Learning and Behaviour: Active Learning Edition (6th ed.). The United States, US: Cengage Learning.
Cherry, Kendra (2015). What is a Taste Aversion? Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/classicalconditioning/f/taste-aversion.htm
Fleming, Amy (2013). Food Aversion: Why they occur and how you can tackle them. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2013/jun/18/food-aversions-why-occur-how-tackle
O’Donnell, Stephanie, Webb, J.K. and Shine, Richard (2010). Conditioned taste aversion enhances the survival of an endangered predator imperilled by a toxic invader. Journal of Applied Ecology, 47 (3), 558-565. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01802.x