Food's fond memories?

New York Times/September 2, 2004
By Benedict Carey

New York -- If only that very first bite of asparagus had inspired delight, and the first taste of jelly doughnut had caused a stomachache. If children's happiest food memories were baked and not fried, leafy green rather than beefy, think of the difference in what people might eat.

Now, think of what it might mean to change those memories - as an adult. Psychologists in California and Washington were studying false memories when they stumbled on a surprisingly easy target for manipulation: food.

In a study accepted for publication in the journal Social Cognition, the researchers describe how they fooled college students into thinking that as children they had become sick when eating certain foods.

The students answered questions about their early eating memories. A week later, they were presented with a bogus food-history profile that embedded a single falsehood - that they had gotten sick when eating pickles or hard-boiled eggs - among real memories.

"This is called the false feedback technique, where you gather data from the subjects and use it to lend credibility to this false profile," said Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine who led the research.

About 40 percent of the 336 participants confirmed in later interviews that they remembered getting sick or believed it to be true.

Compared with students whose memories were not manipulated, the believers said on questionnaires that they would be much more likely to avoid eating pickles or hard-boiled eggs if offered them at a party.

In another study, just completed, the researchers found that people who were told that they loved asparagus as children were much more drawn to that slender delicacy than those whose memories were left alone.

Proust's reflections on tea and madeleines notwithstanding, the earliest experience of taste is as open to tampering as other memories, Loftus said. If these revisions became permanent, they might affect how and what people eat.

"What we'd like to do now," Loftus said, "is take the students out for a real picnic and see what happens."

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