Festive nostalgia leaves no scone unturned

For many, the Christmas season is all about delicious food! Monash University researchers are attempting to understand how the combination of nostalgia and social interaction leads to poor food choices.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and fresh pumpkin pie are synonymous with cherished childhood memories of the Festive Season. A Christmas Carol or two from Bing Crosby probably completes this picture.

But what if these nostalgic recollections of rockin’ around the Christmas tree are negatively impacting our food choices – namely an excessive consumption of indulgent food like sweets, biscuits and cakes.

As indulgent food consumption continues to be regarded as one of the top contributing factors to growing rates of obesity in Australia, a Monash University researcher is attempting to understand how the combination of nostalgia and social interaction leads to poor food choices.

“The desire to reminisce about good times had in the past is part of our human nature. We may have not realised it at the time, but these recollections have shaped our preferences for music, movies, cars and holiday destinations,” Professor Hean Tat Keh said.

“All of us have a fundamental need to belong and food is one of the biggest social lubricants. These tend to be memories we want to relive time and time again.”

Along with two collaborators from China, Professor Keh from Monash Business School’s Department of Marketing conducted original empirical research on the links between nostalgia, social connectedness and hedonic food choices. The results from a set of experimental studies were recently published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies.

“Collectively, our study results show that a person’s preference towards indulgent foods is strongly influenced by nostalgia and their longing for social connectedness,” he said.

“That is, nostalgia triggers their preference for indulgent foods that are embedded in their shared or personal social histories, and this effect is further strengthened when they are dining with friends and family. In essence, our findings explain why people tend to overindulge during the Festive Season.”

The first study examined how nostalgia affected the ice cream preferences of 155 participants from the USA. After being encouraged to think of positive memories of yesteryear, nearly 80% of these participants chose the full-fat option despite recognising that fat-free ice cream was “better for them”.

Similarly, among 101 participants from China, those who were shown images of life scenes in the 1970s were more likely to choose ‘sachima’ (a Chinese sweet treat made of fluffy strands of fried dough bound together with stiff sugar syrup) than the healthier option (i.e. oatmeal biscuits). In contrast, those who saw images of contemporary life scenes had higher preference for the oatmeal biscuits.

Using the same methodology, Professor Keh recruited 146 participants for another study in Australia to see if this impacted their food choice between fried potato chips and mixed nuts. One group was subjected to nostalgic manipulation while the other was in a ‘controlled’ environment.

Results showed that nearly 70% of participants from the ‘nostalgic’ group chose fried potato chips – justifying the decision as a form of connection to memories past – while 65% of people from the ‘control’ group chose mixed nuts.

In the final study, 310 people were asked to imagine that they were having dinner in three separate scenarios – with a group of friends, with strangers and alone – and then asked to choose between a fresh fruit platter and a rich chocolate cake for dessert.

“This particular study really drove home the influence that social connectedness has on our food choices. About 74% of people preferred eating the chocolate cake when surrounded by friends, however only 31% of people selected this indulgent option when dining alone,” Professor Keh said.

Beyond the theoretical contributions, Professor Keh said the findings had significant implications for policy makers and consumers globally, when it came to health promotion.

“Health problems, such as obesity and eating disorders, can be partially affected by the same social influence process that explains the effect of nostalgia on food preference,” Professor Keh said.

“Government health agencies may consider using themes that focus on the present or the future rather than the past in public health advertising. Similarly, consumers could focus their actions on the present or future instead of using past experiences – as positive as they may have been – to reduce their desire for indulgent or comfort foods which are less healthy.”