Melting hearts this Easter: blending neuro and sensory science.

Posted by Debbie Parker on the 16th April, 2019
Our perception is driven by memories & expectations built from our past experience, knowledge of brands and exposure to marketing and advertising – but much of it is outside our conscious awareness.

Unravelling the human science behind our love affair with chocolate.

Easter is a time for indulgence… and that means chocolate.
As Spring is beckoning and the bleak winter and New Year diets are receding, nothing says ‘Happy Easter’ more than feasting with wilful abandon on chocolate. Just the smell of chocolate has been proven to have a calming effect on people, and the theobromine found in chocolate is known to have a positive effect on mood.

At Easter we want to buy the best chocolate for those we love, but is what we think of as the highest quality actually the best in reality? Here at Walnut, we conducted some research using innovative neuroscientific techniques alongside sensory science to explore our love affair with chocolate – setting some premium quality chocolate against more mainstream options, with rather surprising results!

Using research to really understand our perception of quality.
Why do we believe one chocolate is higher quality than another?  Our perception is driven by memories & expectations built from our past experience, knowledge of brands and exposure to marketing and advertising – but much of it is outside our conscious awareness. So, looking at what people say at a conscious level gives us only part of the story, as it does not reveal the underlying emotional associations which we know have a significant impact on behaviour.

However, reaction time testing (RT) – a neuroscience technique – enables us to measure the strength of these deeper underlying associations. A faster reaction time indicates a stronger emotional certainty, and thus measures not just what people say but also how strong the underlying conviction is. Put simply, hesitation matters: RT gives us this level of understanding that would otherwise remain hidden.

We also know that people are very good at saying whether they like something but are not so good at explaining what it is about its sensory characteristics that they like. We therefore conducted expert detailed sensory analysis using in-depth attribute profiling of the chocolates to help understand why certain brands were liked more than others, giving another layer of insight around flavour and texture that consumers just can’t articulate.

The difference between saying something and meaning it!
It became evident in our taste test that what people said wasn’t necessarily what they believed.

When faced with nine debranded chocolate pieces, people rationally placed a premium dark chocolate (Brand A) highest for quality: the rational cues (dark, rich and strong) suggesting a better chocolate. In 2nd place was Lindt Lindor, followed by another dark chocolate (Brand C).

However, RT gave us additional insight, revealing that Lindt and chocolate C were both rated higher quality with a greater degree of emotional conviction than Brand A: subconsciously they are truly believed to be better quality, despite Lindor’s colour cues.

It was also interesting to note that a well-known milk chocolate brand performed very well when people were asked rationally if they liked it, but RT showed that it wasn’t as loved nearly as much as consumers claimed explicitly. Perhaps there was something about the flavour/texture of this chocolate that didn’t quite match the perception of quality?

The winning brand literally melts in the mouth.
So, what was it about Lindor that people loved over all the other brands?  In general terms, people scored it highest for being sweet, smooth, soft & velvety, while our detailed sensory analysis revealed that this is driven by the presence of a more malty & vanilla aroma and flavour, and a soft bite. Most notably, our experts also detected Lindor’s faster speed of melt in the mouth and a short sweet finish that doesn’t linger.

The reason chocolate melts in the mouth is driven by the crystal form of cocoa butter, favoured by chocolate makers, which melts at 33.8°C just below human body temperature.  So chocolate rich in this cocoa butter literally melts in the mouth, as well as melting your heart.

Of the two dark chocolates, Brand C is also sweet as well as dark and bitter, whereas Brand A, which scored highest for quality at a rational level, was in reality very bitter and drying with little sweetness.

So, there you have it.  If you want to find out what consumers truly believe, and why, research will need to include the extra dimensions of understanding: RT for underlying levels of emotional conviction, and expert sensory analysis for the product attributes driving this.

And if you want to give your loved ones chocolate this Easter, give them chocolate that has sweet, malty & vanilla notes, a soft bite and a fast speed of melt – and you’ll melt their hearts too!

Meet the Author: Debbie Parker
Share this blog