Espresso yourself: Coffee thoughts leave a latte on the mind

For millions of Australians, each day begins with a hot cup of coffee in order to activate our brains for the working day. The morning coffee run also acts a social lubricant, a creature comfort and, for some, a non-negotiable ritual.

But what if coffee aficionados could get the same effects from their morning latte by simply responding to cues that make them think of coffee – including the smells, sights and sounds?

New international research by Monash University and the University of Toronto has found that the placebo effect of coffee can heighten arousal, ambition and focus in regular drinkers without them actually consuming the beverage.

Dr Eugene Chan, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the Monash Business School, and Sam Maglio, Associate Professor of Marketing and Psychology at the University of Toronto, explored the association between coffee and arousal to see if the brain’s exposure to stimuli could deliver the same cognitive benefits as a caffeine buzz.

“As long as individuals see a connection between coffee and arousal, whatever its origin may be, mere exposure to coffee-related cues might trigger arousal in and of themselves without ingesting any form of caffeine,” Dr Chan said.

“Smelling coffee gives rise to the beverage’s psychoactive, arousing effects. This is because the brains of habitual coffee consumers are conditioned to respond to coffee in certain ways, as per the prominent Pavlov’s dog theory.

“So walking past your favourite café, smelling the odours of coffee grounds, or even witnessing coffee-related cues in the form of advertising can trigger the chemical receptors in our body enough for us to obtain the same arousal sensations without consumption.”

Researchers exposed 871 participants from Western and Eastern cultures to coffee and tea-related cues across four separate experiments that would make them think of the substance without actually ingesting it.

In one study, participants had to come up with advertising slogans for coffee or tea. In another, they had to mock-up news stories about the health benefits of drinking coffee or tea. The arousal levels and heart rates were monitored by the researchers throughout the studies.

The study centred on a psychological effect called ‘mental construal’. This determines how individuals think and process information, whether they focus on narrow details or the bigger picture.

Results showed that priming people with coffee cues – exposing them to images and other stimuli (smells and sounds) about coffee – increased their alertness, energy levels, heart rate, and made them think narrowly.

The cognitive-altering effects of coffee were more prevalent in participants from Western countries, where coffee is more popular and has connotations related to energy, focus and ambition, compared to those from Eastern countries. Coffee was also associated with greater arousal than tea.

“Our research can offer intriguing implications, as it relies not on physiology but rather psychological associations to change our cognitive patterns,” Dr Chan said.

“This study could even help to explain how drinking decaffeinated coffee can produce faster reaction times on tasks. Perhaps the mental association between coffee and arousal is so strong that it can produce cognitive changes even where there’s no caffeine ingestion physiologically.

“This adds to the growing amount of literature documenting that the foods we eat and the beverages we drink do more than simply provide nutrition or pleasure – mere exposure to, or reminders of them, affect how we think.”

The coffee industry in Australia is worth close to $10 billion, with industry revenue growing at a rate of 2.2% annually for the past five years.

This study was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition in April 2019.