Word of mouth: How our tongue shapes our preferences, and why you should eat popcorn in the cinema

Preventing the tongue from training the tango

If the mouth gets trained to subtly pronounce words when those words are repeated, and if this fluency gain is driving repetition effects, then repetition effects should disappear when the mouth is prevented from training pronunciations. This can be done by getting the mouth busy with some other movements, a method psychologists call interference. Recently, Topolinski and Strack (2009b) re-ran the classical experiment by Zajonc by presenting nonsense words to participants and repeating some of these words, while participants should report their liking of these words. Crucially, Topolinski and Strack additionally asked participants to do one of the following tasks. One group of participants should knead a ball with their left hand during reading and rating the words. This task was a control condition that should not actually disturb subvocal articulations. The other group of participants, however, was asked to chew a gum during reading and rating the words (see also Topolinski & Türk-Pereira, 2012). This task, as distracting as kneading a ball, entertained the oral musculature with chewing movements that disturbed the hidden articulation training. The result was that participants kneading a ball still preferred repeated over novel words (which is the basic mere exposure effect), but participants chewing gum showed no particular preference at all, they liked repeated and novel words to a similar degree.

This shows that the fluency of familiar words actually stems from the easiness of subvocal articulations in the mouth (see also Topolinski, 2012). In further experiments, other repetition effects were also blocked, because repetition does not only lead to preference, but also to other positive emotions, such as trust.

Chewing gum undermines fame

The fluency of names can be interpreted as a mere preference. However, depending on the question you ask and the context in which names are presented, this positive gut feeling can be interpreted as being other emotions. For instance, in earlier studies person names were presented to participants –some of the names repeatedly– and participantz they were told that these names were names of actors and were asked how famous they think these actors were (Jacoby, Kelley, Brown, & Jasechko, 1989; Strack & Neumann, 2000). It was found that repeated actor names were rated as being more famous than names that were not repeated during the experiment. For instance, the Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai might appear to you even more famous just because this name was mentioned earlier in this article. We call this the false-fame effect. Following the logic of the tongue tango, also this effect should depend on the lips and tongue.

Consequently, Topolinski and Strack (2010) re-ran the false-effect paradigm and again asked some of the participants to knead a ball and others to eat popcorn. Eating popcorn is a funny experimental condition for participants, but for basic psychological research, it is just another way of keeping the mouth entertained. The result of these manipulations was again that participants in the ball control condition showed the basic effect, they rated repeated names of actors as being more famous than names that were not repeated. However, the popcorn eating participants did not show this effect.

Chewing in times of the crisis

Another emotion that comes with repetition is trust. You more likely trust someone or something that is familiar to you than something that is unfamiliar. This is particularly true for economic decisions (e.g., Alter & Oppenheimer, 2006; Novemsky, Dhar, Schwarz, & Simonson, 2007), such as trusting brands or investment fonds, where there are too many hidden factors influencing the qualitity of an option to efficiently take this complex background information into account. In these cases, you often reduce this information complexity and go with your gut. But again, oral embodiment predicts that this “gut” is actually in your mouth. Topolinski and Strack (2010) tested this using the financial crisis in 2008 as a cover story. They presented various names of Asian shares taken from the Nikkei index to participants, and asked participants to rate how trustworthy these shares are. Again, some of the names were repeatedly presented. Again, it turned out that participants who kneaded a ball trusted the repeated shares more than the shares presented only one time. In contrast, participants who ate a cereal bar (as another funny way of entertaining the mouth) during this task showed no particular preference for repeated names.

These basic research studies show that your gut for names comes from the mouth. But does this have any real-life impact? Thus far, the reviewed studies asked participants hypothetical questions in rather artificial experimental contexts. However, there are real-life situations that entail both repetition of brand names and oral interference.

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