Photo: Dina Litovsky

In 2013, Jon Stewart, then the host of The Daily Show, set aside the program’s usual focus on politics to talk about something more important: pizza, specifically Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. “Deep-dish pizza is not only not better than New York pizza,” Stewart explained. “It’s not pizza.” Then, after several more minutes railing against the dish, he concluded, “Here’s how I know I’m right: You call it ‘Chicago-style pizza,’ ‘deep-dish pizza,’ ‘stuffed pizza.’” The New York City–born comedian pulled a thin slice of pizza from under his desk. “You know what we call this? Pizza.”

Taste is an interesting thing. We might like to think that our own tastes are uniquely ours, and that they are somehow more “correct” than others’. When it comes to the “right” way to prepare our favorite dishes, people revel in what distinguishes us from the next town over, no matter how slight the differences might seem from a distance. Beyond pizza, Americans are happy to praise local styles of barbecue, hot dogs, chili, or cheesesteak. These differences are often attributed to regional pride, but the reality is more complicated, and they are deeply informed by our relationships with others.

That there is a link between the foods people eat and their identities is hardly a novel idea, and many people define themselves in terms of the sustenance they prefer: vegans, paleos, “meat lovers.” But the ways we seek nourishment not only say something about who we are as people, they also reveal how our identities work.

As social psychologists, we know that people possess a variety of identity-related motives. They are attracted to high-status groups. They want to belong and fit in. And, paradoxically, they also want to be distinct (hence the endless arguments about pizza preferences). As the status-conferring properties of different foods change with time, for instance, so do people’s culinary preferences.

These days, shopping for “local,” “seasonal” food is often a marker of a certain level of socioeconomic identity. At Le Pavillon, a glamorous, and expensive, new restaurant in midtown Manhattan that is run by the chef Daniel Boulud, the marketing copy flatly proclaims, “Nature, bounty, seasonality, and a close focus on the richness of northeast fishermen and farmers are the guiding principles of chef Daniel’s personal approach to Le Pavillon’s culinary identity.” But there was a time, not so long ago, when the ability to acquire ingredients from far and wide, and at any time of year, was the truer signal of prestige. As author Adam Gopnik vividly puts it in his book The Table Comes First, “The man who could get strawberries in December and poulet de Bresse on Madison Avenue was the man with taste. Now the same enlightened diner is defined by the rejection of the remote and out-of-season; he’s the man who refuses strawberries in December and wants his chicken grown and strangled in his own basement.”

In other words, the foods we eat allow us to project valued identities, and eating is perhaps one of the strongest ways we connect with our own communities. (A quick glance at Instagram reveals how common it is for people to use images of food to connect with their social network or signal something about who they are.) The motive to fit in — and, relatedly, the feeling that if we’re going to fit in, others had better do the same — also shapes how we eat. Our communities develop complicated systems of manners, knowledge of which serves to signal who is on the inside and who is an outsider.

In our research, food has also deepened our understanding of the dynamic nature of human identity. The human sense of self is of course not unidimensional or stable. People possess multiple identities, and as different identities come in and out of focus, it alters our perceptions and preferences, goals and decisions.

In one experiment designed to study this, we teamed up with our colleague Michael Wohl at Carleton University to study Canadians in Ottawa’s ByWard Market, a popular hub of food stalls and speciality markets. Our research team offered participants the chance to take part in a taste test. If they agreed, we presented them with two small plastic cups, one containing a sample of honey, the other of maple syrup. After tasting each, our participants answered various questions about the experience, including how pleasant they found the flavor.

Honey and maple syrup are both sticky, sweet, and widely enjoyed, but only one is closely associated with Canadian identity. The country, after all, maintains a strategic national supply of maple syrup … just in case.

Before we gave people the taste test, we had them complete a questionnaire designed to bring different aspects of their identity into focus.

Half of the participants responded to prompts that highlighted their own personal and individual self. We asked them to “name two things you do well.”  They also drew a picture of themselves.

In contrast, the other half of participants were asked to highlight their identity as Canadians. They named things that Canadians do well and drew a picture of the national flag.

Of course, everyone in our study possessed both sorts of identities. But activating these different selves shifted their preferences on the taste test. People who had thought about themselves in individualistic terms derived the same amount of sticky pleasure from the honey and the maple syrup. But among people who were thinking about themselves as Canadians, the maple syrup was a clear winner, preferred significantly more than the honey.

Objectively, the maple syrup was identical for all of these participants. Nothing about its texture and sweetness or even about the ambiance of the market was different. The only thing that changed was the identity through which people judged the flavor, and as that changed, so did their subjective experience. We found a nearly identical pattern with highly identified southern Americans — when they were reminded of their southern identity, they preferred a serving of black eyed peas or grits to any kind of pizza.

In similar experiments, we have also found that activating different identities can alter the sense of smell. When Swiss participants were reminded of their national identities, they found the scent of chocolate more intense than when they thought about themselves as individuals.

For chefs, these findings might be alarming — they spend countless hours acquiring pristine ingredients and crafting them into beautiful dishes, yet this time and work exists outside of their customers. It matters, but the eating experiences that people have are also shaped by what they bring with them, including momentarily salient aspects of their identities.

Food is central to identity, and friendship. It bridges differences with others and forges new, deeper connections, which is one of the reasons the pandemic has been so hard. We suspect that the desire everyone so urgently feels to “get back to normal” is less about going back to the office or even hopping on a plane for vacation, but about reconnecting around the dinner table, sharing potluck, or arguing about pizza over drinks.

Dominic Packer and Jay Van Bavel are social psychologists whose new book, The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony, is out today.