Love for Chili Peppers is Linked to Risk Taking Personality Traits
Some people cannot stand being even a foot away from spicy foods while others drown everything on the plate in tabasco sauce. Studies suggest that the difference between the two extremes may be linked differences in personality. A number of studies have demonstrated that the liking for spicy food is linked to personality traits such as greater risk taking, adrenaline seeking, outgoing personality and sensation seeking.The desire for an adrenaline rush can possibly explain why we eat the technically toxic chilies and actually enjoy the painful burning sensation, as well as make a sport out of it-in chili pepper eating contests and festivals.
Capsaicin is the active compound in chili peppers that causes that infamous sensation of burning eyes and tears running down your cheeks, a runny nose and of course the flames coming out of your mouth and ears. Capsaicin is mostly concentrated in the plant tissues that hold the seeds but it also present in the fleshy parts of the plant. It is hypothesized that birds are not affected by Capsaicin because they carry the seeds and increase their growth by spreading the seeds. Fungi on the other hand are affected by the capsaicin because they attack the seeds of the plant, and mammals are just accidentally vulnerable to the wrath of the hot chili peppers. In the human body, the capsaicin is involved in a chemical interaction with the neurons and stimulates the same receptors that are stimulated by heat which are usually activated when you are exposed to temperatures above 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius). This explains why the reaction is a burning sensation and a very painful and quite harmful one depending on the dose.
Although it is an irritant to humans, capsaicin is widely used in medicine and it has several health benefits. It is an ingredient in analgesic creams that relieve arthritis pain, back aches and strains; it is also used in nasal sprays and in creams that relieve the symptoms of psoriasis. Concentrated capsaicin is so strong that it is actually used in paint stripper, bear spray and police pepper spray.
So what is it that makes us crave for that painful and burning sensation we get after eating spicy food? A study done by Penn State University found a strong correlation between sensation seeking personalities and liking of spicy foods. Participants who scored higher on the Arnett’s Inventory Sensation Seeking (AISS) test — which measures one’s enjoyment in risk taking experiences that are characterized by novelty and intensity of stimulation (i.e. gambling or listening to loud music). Those who scored high on the AISS test also scored higher on the enjoyment of spicy foods. According to Dr. Alan Hirsch of Chicago’s Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation: “There’s a long-standing hypothesis that risk takers are adrenaline deficient and that they take risks to get that adrenaline and feel better”, and the pain from eating spicy food enhances the adrenaline level.
Benign masochism can be another plausible explanation for our almost perverse pleasure in the pain from eating spicy foods as hypothesized by Dr. Paul Rozin at University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Rozin conducted a study where he tested chili eaters by increasing the “pain” or heat, to a point where the participants could not handle anymore. When the participants were asked which level of heat they like most, many chose the highest level they could tolerate which was “just below the level of unbearable pain.”
What is interesting is that humans are the only mammals who enjoy eating chili peppers. Culture and social norms are definitely a big part of that explanations, but the intricate thought and reaction processes of our brain are quite fascinating in how they makes something so inherently uncomfortable and painful into something that pleasurable and desirable.