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Do Hot Foods Produce Hotheads?

New research links spicy foods to aggressive thoughts.
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(Photo: Lauren Topor/Flickr)

(Photo: Lauren Topor/Flickr)

It has become one of our most popular consumer products, with many young people enjoying it literally every day. Research suggests a regular diet can produce elevated levels of aggression, however.

Relax, video game enthusiasts: This post is not about you. Unless, that is, your between-game snacks regularly feature chips dipped in extra-hot salsa.

Three studies “provide strong evidence that consumption of, or exposure to, spicy food evokes aggression-related thoughts,” a research team led by Rishtee Batra of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad writes in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Among other things, the researchers found spicy foods made people more likely to interpret another’s actions as aggressive. It’s only a matter of time before defense attorneys start claiming their clients were innocent victims of Jalapeño-induced hostility.

The central study featured 60 college students who began by taking a “taste test,” sampling either a plain tortilla chip or one “with two drops of habanero hot sauce.”

They then were given 20 word fragments and asked to complete each, choosing between one of two options. For 10 of the fragments (such as H-T), their choice was between a word connoting aggression (HIT) and one that did not (HAT).

Finally, they “read a vignette in which a protagonist named Jay behaves in an ambiguously aggressive manner.” (The narrator notes that “I heard him demand his money back from the cashier” at the supermarket, although he has no idea what precipitated the dispute.) After finishing, the participants “indicated the extent to which Jay exhibited aggressive intent.”

The results: “There was a greater activation of aggression-related thoughts among those who consumed the spicy food,” the researchers report. In addition, people who had eaten the spicy chip assumed “higher aggressive intent in Jay.”

In another study, the 108 participants (also students) either saw photographs of spicy foods, or were verbally asked about whether they enjoyed such items. They then completed the same tests as those in the previous group.

Those who had seen the photos “imputed higher aggressive intent in Jay.” Those who merely talked about them did so as well, albeit to a lesser extent. This suggests thoughts of such foods can produce aggression-related ideas even if you don’t actually taste them.

Why chili might make one combative isn’t entirely clear, but a 2014 study found men with higher testosterone levels preferred spicier foods. The researchers also note that “spicy foods contain higher levels of capsaicin, an ingredient that has been shown to evoke discomfort, aggression, and even pain.”

So, before you angrily accuse a fellow restaurant patron of looking at you the wrong way, consider the dish you have been dining on. It’s quite possible that curry isn’t doing you any favors.