The more I read about famous scientific experiments, the more I realize I'm doing the dumb and sloppy version of them every day. In the past, I've accidentally performed personality experiments on other people. Now I've performed a conditioning experiment on myself.

Recently I've taken up drinking tea. I know, it's like every day of my life is the last third of a Die Hard movie. I like, when I am bored, going to putter around the kitchen. I like sipping from a teacup and staring meditatively out into the distance. I like the scones and cream that often come with tea. (Certainly, they come with tea when I'm making the tea.) Unfortunately, I find the taste of actual tea leaves pretty wretched. Going with the idea that there's nothing a little sugar can't improve, I started adding sugar to my tea. The plan was to ease back on the sugar a little every day, until I liked the taste of tea alone.

And today, while reading about Pavlovian conditioning, I find that by doing this I've been performing Pavlovian conditioning on myself. It's called flavor-flavor conditioning. The experiment was first performed decades ago, with rats. The rats were given food flavored with banana and food flavored with almond. They were housed in cells equipped with — and I love this name — "lickometers." Some rats had their almond food sweetened. Some had their banana food sweetened. Since rats like sugar just as much as we do, they licked up whichever flavor was sweetened, preferring it to the unsweetened flavor. When the sweetener was taken away, the rats that had had sweetened almond food still preferred almonds, while the rats that had had sweetened banana food still preferred bananas. They had been conditioned to like certain flavors.

It didn't work with me, and it seems, given other studies, that's not surprising. Experiments performed on people did not have the same effect. One study simply gave drinks of different flavors, one of which was sweetened, to human subjects. (I assume they weren't fitted with lickometers, which is a shame, really.) The study found that the "evidence for positive flavor-flavor conditioning was weak at best." When the sweetness was taken away, people didn't tend to prefer the no-longer-sweetened flavor. Another study, a bit more ambitious, attempted to get elementary school kids to like eating vegetables. The kids were given vegetable puree sweetened with sugar to drink. Although they did like the sweet vegetable shake, the sugared vegetables did not lead to them liking regular vegetables.


Lab rats lead a somewhat more constrained life than school kids, or even human laboratory test subjects. It might be that, if their dietary choices were limited, and the study could be conducted for a long period of time, humans might be as conditionable as rats. We might start preferring carrots and kale to chocolate. But I won't be volunteering for that experiment. Meanwhile, I've got some nice herbal tea that I can drink without feeling like someone burned their autumn leaf pile in my mouth. And thus endeth the experiment.

Top Image: Petr Kratochvil. Rat Image: Jason Snyder.

[Via Flavor-flavor and color-flavor conditioning in humans, The Role of Flavor-Flavor Conditioning, Conditioned Flavor-taste Preferences]