Even hints of coffee can change the pace of our minds, making us more alert and attentive.

Cappuccino.

Image via Pixabay.

We’ve come to associate coffee with productivity to such an extent — at least in Western cultures — that even hints of it have an effect on how our minds work. The findings are part of a new study published by researchers from the University of Toronto (U of T).

Hints of productivity

“Coffee is one of the most popular beverages and a lot is known about its physical effects,” said Sam Maglio, an associate professor in the department of management at U of T Scarborough and the study’s co-author.

“Much less is known about its psychological meaning — in other words, how even seeing reminders of it can influence how we think.”

Together with Eugene Chan, a former PhD student at Rotman, Maglio looked at a psychological effect called priming. Through priming, they explain, exposure to even subtle cues or stimuli can alter how we perceive the world around us, our thoughts, and our behavior.

As we tend to encounter coffee-related cues pretty often in our daily lives, or think about the brew ourselves, we tend to undergo this priming process regarding coffee quite a lot. The authors wanted to see if this actually has a noticeable effect on people — specifically, they wanted to see if “there was an association between coffee and arousal such that if we simply exposed people to coffee-related cues, their physiological arousal would increase, as it would if they had actually drank coffee,” according to Maglio.

Arousal refers to the state of being alert, awake, and attentive. In the brain, arousal is mediated by specific brain areas increasing and then maintaining their levels of activity. Psychological arousal can be triggered by many things, the authors explain, including emotions, neurotransmitters in the brain, or the caffeine we consume (that’s why coffee wakes you up). But does looking at a caffeinated drink, or thinking about one, have the same effect on us?

In order to find out, the team carried out four separate studies, working with a mix of participants from western and eastern cultures alike. The wide cultural range of the participants was needed so that the team could compare the effects of both coffee- and tea-related cues. They found that participants exposed to coffee-related cues perceived time as shorter and thought in more concrete, precise terms.

“People who experience physiological arousal — again, in this case as the result of priming and not drinking coffee itself — see the world in more specific, detailed terms,” says Maglio. “This has a number of implications for how people process information and make judgments and decisions.”

This effect was relatively strong in western participants, but not so pronounced in participants who grew up in eastern cultures. The team believes this is due to differences in how coffee is perceived among the two cultural groups.

“In North America we have this image of a prototypical executive rushing off to an important meeting with a triple espresso in their hand,” Maglio explains, adding that “there’s this connection between drinking caffeine and arousal that may not exist in other cultures.”

In the future, the authors plan to continue this line of research and look at the associations people have for different foods and beverages — and how that influences their psychological priming effects.

The paper “Coffee cues elevate arousal and reduce level of construal” has been published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

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