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Can Science Explain Our Obsession With Pumpkin Spice?

When fall arrives, so do all things pumpkin spice. But why do we crave it? Turns out there are biological and psychological reasons behind our obsession.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
Episode #352
pumpkin spice
The Quick And Dirty

Science suggests there are biological and psychological reasons behind our obsession with pumpkin spice. 

  • Reactance theory tells us we want what we can't have, including limited-time products like pumpkin spice
  • Smells are capable of triggering memories, and so pumpkin spice can make us feel nostalgic
  • Evolution may drive our sugar cravings

Fall is upon us in the Northern Hemisphere. In the U.S., that means cooler temperatures, shorter days, and pumpkin spice. Love it or hate it, pumpkin spice is everywhere. Of course, we’ve got our pumpkin spice coffee and scented candles, but I’ve also seen pumpkin spice flavored bone broth, special edition pumpkin spice Spam, pumpkin spice deodorant, and even pumpkin spice hummus. I shudder at the thought.

And this isn’t just a U.S.-based obsession. Starbucks offers its pumpkin spice latte in 50 countries including some in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. So in a world where we can’t seem to agree on anything, how is it that pumpkin spice is such a universal infatuation? Well, as it turns out, there's some science to explain our obsession. 

We want what we can’t have

Our desire for pumpkin spice likely comes down to the simple idea that we tend to want what we can’t have. Marketers know this and strategize accordingly. 

In the field of psychology, reactance is our urge to regain a specific freedom when we feel we’ve lost it or that it’s under threat. This response can apply to more important things like actual physical freedom or the freedom of choice in our major life decisions, but it also pertains to less significant freedoms, like the freedom to indulge in consumer products like pumpkin spice at any time of the year.

In the field of psychology, reactance is our urge to regain a specific freedom when we feel we’ve lost it or that it’s under threat.

Sharon and Jack Brehm first wrote about the theory of reactance in an article called Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. They conducted a study in which they asked participants to listen to and rate four different music albums. They were then told to choose only one album to keep. The researchers then told just one group that the record they had ranked third of the four got lost during shipment and so was no longer available. After being asked to re-score the albums, two-thirds of the participants in that group gave the album they could no longer have a higher ranking. 

I see this consumer reactance firsthand every year when my daughter sells cookies as a fundraiser for her Girl Scout troop. The Girl Scouts set up a table outside of a bookstore and someone who presumably had no plans to buy cookies that day walks by and is suddenly taking home six boxes. Girl Scout cookies are yummy, of course, but so are other cookies. A large part of the appeal is that you can only buy Girl Scout cookies for a few months out of the year.

You may have seen reactance play out in terms of the new restaurant in town. According to the reservation website OpenTable, there are over 32,500 restaurants in New York City. Despite an abundance of options, when word gets out about a restaurant where it’s hard to get a reservation, suddenly everyone wants to go.  

We only have a small window of time in order to get our pumpkin spice fix—the flavor doesn’t start popping up in stores until October approaches, and then there's a short window before it's replaced by peppermint and gingerbread for the December holiday season. 

Reactance plays out in children’s behavior as well, although it's seen more clearly in adolescents than in younger children. I sometimes joke with my husband that we should take a firm stance against something arbitrary—like no guitar-playing in the house, ever!—so that our children will have something to rebel against.

Growing up I got the message that physics was a field for men—and, to be honest, we still send that message—so I felt compelled to push back on that idea.

I suspect reactance may be a large part of why I am a physicist. Growing up, I got the message that physics was a field for men—and, to be honest, we still send that message—so I felt compelled to push back on that idea. When physics was suggested as not an option for me, I had to have it. 

Pumpkin spice makes us feel nostalgic

In a previous episode, we looked at evidence that smells can trigger memories, sometimes even better than visual cues can. Neuroscientists think this effect may be because the regions in our brains linked to memory, emotion, and our sense of smell all share a close physical connection in the brain.

So, the smell of pumpkin spice may bring us back to a specific fond memory like visiting friends over the Thanksgiving holiday or taking a nice walk through trees as their leaves change color. Pumpkin spice has also come to represent the comfort and coziness of fall. At least for me, that triggers a strong sense of relief from the oppressively hot summer temperatures.

The connection to happy memories often leaves us wanting even more pumpkin spice.

Also, we love sugar

And let’s not forget about the sugar. Pumpkin-spice-flavored foods tend to be very sweet.

There's evidence for biological explanations as to why we crave sugar. Among our early human ancestors, only those with access to sugar survived and thrived. (Of course, we're talking about a few pieces of fruit and not a bag of pumpkin spice M&Ms.) It may be that tasting sugar in plants once signaled to our brain that other, more important, nutrients were present.

So, next time you reach for that pumpkin spice latte, keep in mind that you're reclaiming your freedom, connecting to old memories, and answering the unignorable call of evolution. Just take it easy on the sugar.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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