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Snack Food for Thought

A researcher links favorite junk foods to personality traits, but other scientists say his findings are hard to swallow.

March 29, 2000|ELLEN ALPERSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some doctors use inkblots to help their patients reveal their personalities. Dr. Alan R. Hirsch uses snack foods.

In his recent study, "Snack Food Hedonics and Personality," Hirsch, a neurologist and director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, correlated junk food choice with hedonics (the branch of psychology that deals with pleasant and unpleasant feelings) and came up with a list of personality traits associated with several types of savory snacks.

That might sound goofy, but, said Hirsch, "it's much less goofy than using the Rorschach test to determine personality."

Inkblot perceptions, he said, "are based on occipital lobe activity, in the visual cortex of the brain. But the preference for taste is in the olfactory cortex, in the limbic lobe, which is the emotional part of the brain." It makes more sense, he said, to study personality through emotion.

(The study, underwritten by the Snack Food Assn. and the National Potato Promotion Board, is the third food-personality project Hirsch has conducted. The sponsors hope for marketing mileage, and Hirsch said he hopes for positive peer review, which does not appear to be imminent.)

Edward Abramson, professor of psychology at Cal State Chico, and author of "Emotional Eating: What You Need to Know Before Starting Another Diet," said that Hirsch has made "global, sweeping assertions about personality . . . without presenting data to support them."

Opinions about the scientific validity of Hirsch's work may vary. But even if it's not science, it's definitely entertainment.

To link junk-food consumption with behavior, Hirsch recruited 800 people and gave them a series of psychological tests such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and the Zung Depression Scale. He asked them to state their preferences for potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, snack crackers, cheese curls and meat snacks. Hirsch correlated and analyzed the results and reported that:

* Potato-chip lovers are "ambitious, successful high achievers who enjoy . . .the trimmings of their success." These are undoubtedly the insufferable Type A's who talk on their cell phones in movie theaters.

* Tortilla-chip eaters are "humanitarians who are often distressed by inequities and injustices of society." In other words, if you've got the munchies, hook up with a Doritos devotee, who will share, rather than a Lay's lover, who won't.

* Pretzel people are trend-conscious. They "seek novelty" and are "lively, enthusiastic and fun to be with!" (Now how many clinical studies contain exclamation points?)

* Cheese-curls adherents are "formal, conscientious and always proper." (Then how do they shake hands with all that cheesy goo on their fingers?)

* Meat-snack types tend to be "gregarious," "generous to a fault" and male. They sacrifice their own comfort to please others. (These must be the sensitive men who have no problem committing to pork rinds.)

* Cracker snackers are "contemplative and thoughtful"; they base decisions on "logic rather than emotions." In an admirably athletic leap, Hirsch extrapolated that "those who prefer crackers may easily find themselves romantically involved in an Internet relationship." (At least until all the crumbs clog the keyboard.)

The snack-food study concludes with a constellation of couplings. Potato-chip lovers are most compatible with pretzel people. Tortilla chippers should stick to their own. Pretzel people play with well others. Proponents of snack crackers go for those promiscuous pretzel people. Cheese curlers make a cute couple with potato and tortilla chippers. And meat snackers are meat-and-potato (chip) people.

*

After the study was released, Hirsch said, he was contacted by a trial attorney who thought that information about snack-food preference might lend an edge in jury selection, exactly the sort of application he has sought.

"Food hedonics," he suggested in his report, " . . . has potential utility as a projective test for psychiatric illness as well as personality typing in subjects without pathology. Further research establishing cross-geographics and cross-cultural validity of this projective testing is warranted."

I'm partial to yellow M&Ms. I like them frozen. And I wonder what that means. Maybe the Chocolate Manufacturer's Assn. is in an underwriting mood.

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