Dr. Charles Spence: The Psychologist of Packaging

Testing, Testing

Yogurt cups (or “yoghurt pots” as described in Charles’ 2012 paper “The Influence of the Feel of Product Packaging on the Perception of the Oral-Somatosensory Texture of Food”) used to gauge whether a container’s surface texture could influence taste. Charles and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, the paper’s co-author, found yogurt sampled from the coarse cup (on the left) was perceived as tasting 13 percent more granular than yogurt from the smooth cup (on the right).

So just what has Charles Spence found in his research, written about in more than 500 published articles? Among those he singles out in conversation:

  • It is believed that Coca-Cola drank directly from a bottle tastes better than when drank directly from a can. With the rise in craft beer, does the same perception hold? The results of one of Charles’ studies revealed it does, and people do perceive craft beer from a bottle to taste better than that from a can. Once the beers are poured into glasses, people suddenly are unable to discern any difference
  • One of his most famous studies had participants bite into potato chips—yes, they were paid to do this—and, wearing headphones that looped the sound of each chip’s crunch into their ears, rate the taste. Unknown to the participants, Charles was able to alter the sound of each chip. The results, published in the Journal of Sensory Studies in 2004 under the title “The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips,” revealed chips that had a high-pitched and loud crunch were perceived to be fresher.
  • One of the tenets of sustainable packaging is reducing weight, as a lighter container uses less material and is cheaper to transport. Charles says that when he studies perceptions of packages with different weights, people say lighter goods feel cheaper. That belief extends to taste as well: He has found that adding a small amount of weight to a yogurt container makes the yogurt taste better. “It surprises me how pervasive the beneficial effects of weight are,” he admits.
  • A container that is round will accentuate a product’s sweetness, while an angular design stresses sour and bitter tastes. Rounded or angular logos and typefaces will also contribute to this perception.

Increased Consumption vs. Improved Consumption

Lest you fashion a hat from the metallic foil you got on your last trip to the grocery store and start screaming of conspiracies, know that you are not being coerced into buying things you do not want.

It’s a total experience you’re after. It’s an area more important than most people realize, yet you go to company after company after company, and packaging development is outsourced. The number of times you hear ‘the packaging and product meet on the shelf’ is too great. You have to consider it from the beginning.

Dr. Charles Spence

“It’s a difficult battle,” Charles says when asked if there becomes a point where designing a package incorporates too much of this consumer perception data, where it can profoundly affect the decision-making process. He recalls the years he has spent convincing people a package’s design has a direct correlation to the enjoyment derived from its contents. There is now enough evidence to emphatically state that to be the case. “On one hand, you want to say ‘we finally got there!’” he says of his body of work, “but straight away, people say, ‘that’s evil! That’s manipulation!’”

Manipulation is not a goal of Charles’ research; but he does worry of manipulation in the packaging world. He calls out food packages which show a quantity of food that is actually multiple servings as a harmful abuse of consumer perception. People get home, they open the package and they find the actual size is smaller than what was advertised. That leads to disappointment and can create an urge to consume more to feel satisfied.

Consider instead a package that makes use of consumer perceptions and is designed to make you eat less. A 2015 profile of Charles in The New Yorker details such an application: Consumers ages 70 and older, in order to achieve the same amount of satisfaction from a bowl of tomato soup as young people, have been found to add more than twice as much salt. To steer them away from that, the soup can be served from a blue container—Charles has previously proven the color blue can make food seem saltier.

“There’s a tension between how to make things appealing at one moment, but also set expectations for consumption—maximally attractive on the shelf, but nudge us toward making sensible decisions,” he says. This sort of application of his research—not increased consumption, but improved consumption—he believes is an across-the-board positive. “If I can make you fuller while making you eat less, that’s something I think we can all benefit from.”