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Why we’re crazy for pumpkin spice everything: Johns Hopkins researchers explain the psychology

Here’s an experiment to try. Order a pumpkin spice-flavored drink from your local coffee shop. Without telling them what it is, ask a friend to try it while holding their nose.

Do they know what it is? How about when they can smell it?

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If your research subject is anything like mine, they won’t know what they’re drinking until after you’ve said the magic words: pumpkin spice.

That’s understandable, according to researchers with Johns Hopkins University, who explain the appeal behind the flavoring that dominates fall.

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It’s not the taste of pumpkin spice we love so much as the smell and its associations, said Sarah Cormiea, a Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate studying human olfactory perception, and Jason Fischer, a professor of psychological and brain sciences there.

Of all the senses, smell is uniquely tied to memory.

“There’s a kind of special access to the memory system in the brain that odor perception has,” Fischer said. The part of the brain that processes odors sits “right up against memories in the brain,” he added.

In fact, just reading the phrase “pumpkin spice” can summon scents and memories of fall. The phrase can be particularly enticing when reinforced by things like leaves changing colors and kids going back to school.

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There’s a whole world of pumpkin spice-flavored items in stores, from Cheerios to hummus. Hunt Valley’s own McCormick & Company first released its pumpkin pie spice blend in 1934. Two years ago, it was the company’s fourth best-selling retail spice during the fall.

But coffee giant Starbucks claims credit for the phenomenon, which officials there trace back to their 2003 launch of the pumpkin spice latte. The drink is topped with pumpkin spice, a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger.

A reporter's pumpkin spice latte, purchased at a Starbucks in Baltimore. Researchers say the appeal of pumpkin spice-flavored items is less about the taste than the smell and its associations.
A reporter's pumpkin spice latte, purchased at a Starbucks in Baltimore. Researchers say the appeal of pumpkin spice-flavored items is less about the taste than the smell and its associations. (Christina Tkacik)

“For nearly two decades, the return of pumpkin at Starbucks has signaled the start of the fall season and inspired a cultural phenomenon around fall flavors and products,” reads a news release on the Seattle-based company’s website.

This year, Starbucks stores began selling pumpkin spice lattes and other autumnal beverages and snacks on Aug. 24.

“There’s a reason they don’t have [the pumpkin spice latte] available all year round, right?” Cormiea said. “It’s because people get excited and buy it.”

Despite the linkage between scents and memories, Cormiea said people typically have a hard time naming smells — as if trying to name an acquaintance whose face they recognize at a party. That changes once they hear what something is.

In tests with research subjects, she finds that introducing labels to smells “changes how people experience it. Something like snaps into place once you get the label.”

When it comes to pumpkin spice and other things nice, there’s another factor at play called “the familiarity effect,” Fischer said.

“The more you’ve been exposed to something, the more it ingrains itself in your preferences,” he said. “So simply by experiencing pumpkin spice every year, over and over again ... it takes on that sense of familiarity.”

Add in all the other positive associations with fall, he said, and it “can really cause us to find some sort of nostalgic comfort in it.”

Trust that advertisers know all about the familiarity effect, which is at play behind other nostalgia-based food trends like the craze for “birthday cake”-themed items.

“It’s not just because birthday cake is a tasty thing, it’s because by co-opting that you can use all those positive associations,” Fischer said. “You can take advantage of them.”

Added Cormiea: “Otherwise, they would just call it vanilla.”

Jason Fischer, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins and Sarah Cormiea, a Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate studying human olfactory perception.
Jason Fischer, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins and Sarah Cormiea, a Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate studying human olfactory perception. (will kirk)

In 2017, a school in Fells Point was evacuated after students detected an unusual smell they couldn’t quite place. It turned out to be a pumpkin spice scented air freshener. Had someone told the students it was pumpkin spice, perhaps things would have been different.

People take their sense of smell for granted, Cormiea said. But it plays a major — if underappreciated — role in day-to-day life.

Those who lose their sense of smell, including people suffering long-term effects of COVID-19, are at risk of being not able to detect gas leaks, fires and food going bad. Additionally, loss of smell can be associated with a feeling of emotional disconnection and problems with memory.

“I’ve seen tons of studies where they ask people: ‘If you had to lose one of your senses, which one would you pick?’” she said. “People always say they would give up their sense of smell. And I would like to suggest that that is not the right decision.”

Back to that experiment: After the first sip, while holding his nose, my research subject said he was drinking hot chocolate. After the second sip, where he was permitted to smell the drink at the same time, he pronounced it “gross hot chocolate.” He did not know that it was a pumpkin spice latte.

Since autumn officially begins at 3:20 p.m. Wednesday, he still has time to get with the pumpkin spice program.

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