Eat popcorn with chopsticks? Study reveals how to make a dull experience more enjoyable

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thrill-seeking has gotten a bad rap in clinical circles, perhaps for legitimate reasons. Still, it’s fair to ask: are all thrills harmful? A new study suggests not. Doing common activities in novel ways can actually aid in producing positive effects beyond a mild adrenaline rush: it can transform a mundane experience into one more pleasurable.

Researchers at Ohio State University recently conducted four related experiments with a group of adults, hoping to see whether completing conventional tasks unconventionally could help enhance a participant’s experience.

Woman eating popcorn with chopsticks
Doing certain activities in novel ways — like eating popcorn with chopsticks — can actually produce positive outcomes beyond just a mild adrenaline rush. (Photo credit: Ana. Livecchi, The Ohio State University)

The study’s first experiment involved 68 participants who were recruited under the pretext that the research was focused on mindful eating. Participants were then assigned to one of two groups: one that ate 10 popcorn kernels out of the palm of their hand, or one that ate the kernels using chopsticks.

A subsequent survey, which measured the enjoyment, perceived flavor, and fun factor of each eating method, showed the chopsticks winning handily. Participants said the bizarre practice helped to intensify the flavor of the popcorn and allowed them to feel more immersed in the activity.

Running the same experiment with the same participants a second time, however, revealed a different result: both groups ended up enjoying the experience the same.

“This suggests chopsticks boost enjoyment because they provide an unusual first-time experience, not because they are a better way to eat popcorn,” says Robert Smith, the study’s co-author, in a university release.

Additional experiments demonstrated the potential benefits of enjoying water in a novel way, as well as watching an action sports clip in an interactive fashion.

While these findings are neat, you may still be left wondering how to practically incorporate novelty into your life. Thankfully, the researchers offer a few examples.

For instance, pizza lovers can try experimenting with — or without — utensils. Folding a slice into a taco is another option.

A more consequential suggestion: moving your old couch to another room to lend it some new life. Maybe all your furniture needs is a change of scenery.

“It may be easier to make it feel new than you might think,” Smith says of the sofa suggestion. “It is also a lot less wasteful to find new ways to enjoy the things we have rather than buying new things.”

Smith et al. published their findings on June 17, 2018 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.