Pavlov, Comfort Food and Family

You’ve had a bad day. Your boss was a jerk and you were yelled at by an irate customer. Back at home, you feel lonely and down in the dumps. You’re hungry, or maybe not so much, but all you can think about is one thing—(insert your favorite comfort food here). Turns out the dishes we turn to in times of trouble are linked to the positive relationships we had with the person who first cooked them, a new study from the University of Buffalo finds.

While previous research has shown that “comfort food” (which is different for each person) actually reduces feelings of rejection and isolation, this study links our reasons for seeking out these specific dishes with our relationships to the people who first made the food for us.

According to University of Buffalo psychologist Shira Gabriel, comfort foods “are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children,” and our attraction to these dishes is based on whether we had a good relationship with the person who first prepared them. In order for the dish to be comforting to us, we must have a social connection to that food.

The study, “Threatened belonging and preference for comfort food among the securely attached,” published in the journal Appetite, finds that “comfort food triggers relationship-related” thoughts and feelings and “can fulfill belongingness needs” if the associations are positive ones. The findings, according to the authors, have implications for “better understanding how social factors influence our food preferences and eating behavior.”

Gabriel says this behavior is “straight-up classical conditioning,” the type of unconscious learning discovered by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who found that he could condition dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell after repeated pairings with food. Similarly, we turn to certain foods in times of stress or insecurity because those dishes unconsciously remind us of the positive relationship we had to the person who introduced them to us, according to the study.

The problem comes when we continually turn to those foods for comfort, especially if they aren’t necessarily nutritious, which can be a detriment to our health, say the authors.


Pavlov, Comfort Food and Family