What a Love of Spicy Foods Might Say About Your Personality

Personality, it's what sets us apart and gives us our uniqueness. Maybe you're the type of person who has their closet organized by color, or you dash off letters to publishers whenever you see an error in grammar. But, even the foods that you eat can reveal clues about your personality. The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach wrote, "Because what I eat, what I drink is in itself the 'second self' of my being."

Imagine you are on a date at an Italian restaurant. Like all people who harbor affection for each other, both you and your date delight in discovering the things you have in common, such as a preference for the same wine or a passion for a certain movie.

But, suddenly things take a turn for the worse, as your date pours half a bottle of Tabasco sauce onto their pizza arrabbiata, and then offers you a sauce-drenched slice. Until now you had actually been quite happy with the choice of restaurant and were about to suggest ordering a dessert to split. But, now, the prospect of sharing spicy foods with this person for years in the future has put you off.

Three friends tasting spicy Asian cuisine

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Chile Likers Are Adventurers

The connection of chiles and adventure conclusion came from Paul Rozin and Deborah Schiller of the University of Pennsylvania after they evaluated the first systematic study on chile ingestion.

In Mexico, for example, eating chile peppers is regarded as a sign of strength, valor, and masculine attributes. It was found that American students with a penchant for chiles also had a passion for daring and potentially risky activities including fast driving, parachuting, or swimming in ice-cold water.

Each of these experiences initially requires a certain mental effort to conquer one's fears. However, just as with eating chile peppers, one learns to assess the risk over time. The constrained risk might just be what makes chiles so exciting for some, says Rozin.

Pungency Is Not a Taste

Technically speaking, pungency is not a taste; it's not sweet, salty, bitter, sour, or umami. Hot means pain, which is why you, the careful type, automatically recoil from the offered pizza slice.

The typical pain response is triggered as capsaicin, a chemical compound found in chile peppers hits the pain receptors on the tongue. If it got into your eyes or touched the sensitive lining of your nose, as capsaicin-containing pepper spray would, you'd be doubling over and screaming in pain. So, what makes someone abuse a sensitive part of their body like their tongue with a chemical weapon and reach out for products with names such as Spontaneous Combustion, the Reaper, Mega Death Sauce (Feel Alive!), and Pain 85%, 95%, and 100%? These may sound like the names of death metal bands, but they're actual off-the-shelf hot sauces.

Some people do it for pleasure. According to Rozin, inducing this negative physical experience—accelerated heart rate, sweating, burning sensation, watering eyes, shortness of breath—is evidence of benign masochism. He compares it to watching a horror movie that makes you feel real fear despite knowing that nothing can happen to you.

You won't find anything comparable in the animal kingdom. Even pigs, who usually devour anything edible—and who, if they live in the Mexican highlands, should be accustomed to spicy leftover food from people—tend to give a wide berth to tortillas with a spicy sauce. They have no idea that the perceived heat isn't "real" but merely a misinterpretation by their brain.

Unlocking the Brain's Natural Pain Reliever

We, however, know that chiles won't burn us on the inside. We are intelligent enough to defy the warning signals to a certain extent. In his book Pain: A Story of Liberation, published in German, the physician Harro Albrecht writes that it is as if we triumph over a basic instinct from a safe distance and are rewarded by our brain with a biochemical treatment in the form of endorphins—what Harvard Medical School calls the brain's natural pain reliever.

The same principle applies to the so-called runner's high of marathon runners.

Chile lovers are eager to try new things; willing to take risks; and hungry for variety, strong emotions, and adventures—all characteristics linked to thrill seekers. Put in a good light, this means they have a high degree of curiosity; in less friendly terms, they are easily bored.

This knowledge about your date's personality should send alarm bells ringing if you're someone who likes to play it safe. People who avoid excitement, value consistency, and generally manage perfectly well without exposing themselves to extreme situations should pay more attention to a new acquaintance's preference for hot spices in the future—even if chiles are beneficial for your health, boost your metabolism, and have an analgesic and antibacterial effect.

Excerpted from How We Eat with Our Eyes and Think with Our Stomach by Melanie Mühl and Diana von Kopp. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Melanie Mühl is a features editor at the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and co-author of the paper's blog Food Affair. Diana von Kopp is a psychologist and writer for Food Affair.

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