Tag Archives: psychology

Constructing Taste: The Memetic Transmission of Chocolate’s Consumption


Taste, here, is an autonomous force that affected, rather than reected, discourse.”

Marcy Norton, in discussion of chocolate’s evolving composition (p. 691)


Tangibly, what we might intend by ‘chocolate’ is a broad, non-essentialist, amalgamated foodstuff; it is composed of myriad ingredients, none of which need necessarily be present in order for it to be known as such – with the possible exception of that core ingredient, Theobroma cacao (pictured above); it is “chemically complex, containing many potentially pharmacologically active compounds” and yet there is little in the way of consensus in the sciences or in the humanities as to what precipitates its elevated status among foodstuffs (Benton, p. 213) – a status complicated all the more by the great uncertainty as to what one actually intends by ‘chocolate’. There is ongoing research into the fundamental effects of neurochemicals contained in cacao, the actual content of which, in white chocolate for instance, may be negligible; how chocolate in its tangible form, or indeed as a psychosocial construct, might influence brain chemistry is likely to remain a research area fraught with moral hazard, given the normative judgements, claims, and aspersions more than likely to be elicited from competing interest groups in Big Food, consumer groups, democratically elected governments looking to legislate on nutrition, et cetera… These are particularly shaky foundations on which to attempt to construct some sort of accorded or objectivised truth, and indeed there continues to be a stark lack of consensus in scholarly circles with regards the neurological effects of cacao (Benton, p. 205). Thus this essay takes the behaviour of chocolate consumption, in a rather general and somewhat specious manner, as a behaviour transmitted socially and as that alone, not intending to cast any normative judgements thereupon but to deconstruct various intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics of ‘chocolate’ the concept and the object of consumption which might single it out. The objective is thus chocolate decentred, debased, and a formless tool for memetic analysis of our consumption habits.


Model of Transmission

            A behaviour born in the Amazonian basin millennia before Christ (Coe, p. 24), the spread of cacao consumption, in its broadest sense, would suggest a powerful intergenerational, and indeed intercultural, process of transmission. A foundational view of human ethology is the Platonic understanding of behavioural acquisition by the unending and omnipresent process of mimesis, or emulation (Stanford) – one learns of a behaviour by witnessing it and repeating it after assimilation and simulation in the brain. One can similarly understand this process as the memetic transfer of cultural information, the transfer of a meme (the intellectualised unit represent of the behaviour) from one individual to another and thus its transmission (see video below). One experiences this first-hand in the raising of a child, or simply in the development of close relationships, as humans are preternaturally disposed to mimesis of the bodily comportments of others – one can likely divine whence one inherited one’s own particular tastes, idiosyncrasies, and predilections (perchance chocoholism?).



Richard Dawkins on the ‘Cultural Meme’, Wall Street Journal

In this context, and a conception of his contemporary capitalistic society, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen posited that emulation is the chief determinant of taste – that one inherits tastes from the powerful classes, assimilating their mores out of a Dawkinsian survival instinct (Veblen, pp. 112-17). Chocolate still enjoys a status as a treat or luxury, some of that New World mystique and allure often lavished on its marketing, whilst the average individual in a western nation consumes roughly 10lbs or more per annum (Forbes). Veblen would argue that this alliance of one’s behaviours, and by extension one’s identity, to the trendsetting classes, ie. the colonial elites who first adopted the drinking of chocolate as a delicacy, would be out of prudence in a competitive social environment and thus serve a specific function. This is a view in line with that of cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that taste is the conformity of subjective pleasures to social hierarchies (Sulkunen, p. 112). It would not be a stretch to link these conceptions of memetic transmission as subservient to socio-political order, and not simply informative thereof, to the Marxist or otherwise materialist understandings of the exigences of economy and how profit incentivises, ie. differential rates of taxation, which have dictated the relative fortunes of chocolate, or rather cacao, and other drug-foods such as coffee or tea (p. 185-186).

molten chocolate

Molten chocolate, muthscandy.com

Cultural historian Marcy Norton criticises the ‘functionalist’ perspectives detailed above for their invention of the rational consumer – who behaves according to economic and biological, perhaps genetic, imperatives. Norton similarly dismisses certain more qualitative explanations which suggest ethical, normative explanations for shifts in consumption behaviours. She holds that it is not the purpose of objects but their actual use that is of import, whilst supposedly attempting to address the ‘why’ as opposed to ‘how’ chocolate consumption evolved (Norton, pp. 661-664). Yet, the more post-structuralist aspects of her thinking, with regards eschewing qualitative understandings of the consumer, marry well with conception of the sociocultural functionality of taste as transferred memetically, albeit confined to the Cartesian lines of economic and biospherical exigence. Thus cultural-functional, emulative, materialist, and indeed psychopharmacological models (to be explored below) can be triangulated in the, unconnoted, notion that behaviours such as chocolate consumption, and indeed the very conception of ‘chocolate’ itself, are cultural information diffused by memetic transfer.

Yet, establishing an inoffensive theoretical model for how chocolate-related concepts and behaviours, or simply chocolate-related ‘memes’, are transferred offers no insight into what information is actually coded therein. In like cultural contexts to that in which this author has lived, chocolate is likely far more readily associated with the image of molten chocolate above, at least symbolically; that is, to the complex, recombinant form that has evolved over centuries, been embellished upon almost so much as it that normalised silky, conched, tempered form – as opposed to molten, note, though recognisable all the same – is still systematically erred from today. It is almost so wholly abstracted from the base plant as to render cacao, pictured below, all but unrecognisable to the average consumer. In order to understand the social transmission of chocolate consumption, one must look at the polymorphous conception of chocolate that is coded, in its intrinsic and extrinsic complexities.

sliced cacao pods

Sliced cacao pods, public domain

Content of Transmission

The experience of cacao consumption is not only a product of that behaviour’s transmission, but necessarily its precedent. Consumption of a foodstuff is the exemplification of a subjective experience and, as such, despite the fact that the behaviour may be replicable, and indeed often enacted socially and thus easily transmitted and replicated with a degree of specificity, attempts by researchers to construct metrics thereupon are doomed to be disappointingly lacking in insight (eg. Stuckey, pp. 136-137). Strictly gustatory experience, ie. taste only as experienced via the tongue in exclusion of other senses and neurological activity, has fewer variables at play and indeed the great sweetness and fattiness of some chocolates has been shown, though clearly not then representative of large swathes of that which falls under the moniker ‘chocolate’, to stimulate reward circuitry in the brain – ie. prefrontal activity indicative of mesocorticolimbic dopamine activation (Benton, pp. 213-215). Yet even one’s taste buds, the transductive receivers which convert molecules to electrical signals and neurochemicals that communicate information to the gustatory cortex (whose role is explained in the video below), do not work in isolation of other senses. They also vary, and not only from person to person, ie. in their combined constitution. In the individual’s own lifetime their taste buds evolve unto adulthood (Stuckey, p. 21). This only nods towards the potential epigenetic influences of tastes, themselves received and thus reinforced or augmented by memetic transfer – a good example would be how a child may have a sweet-tooth, partly due to exposure to high levels of cortisol in the womb, or to displays of stress in early life which predisposes a calorific diet, who in later life develops more savoury tastes and so alters the memes, and indeed genes, they would otherwise have transmitted to their own progeny (Cornell; NCBI). One can clearly see the application of this analogy to patterns of chocolate consumption and the potential for individuation thereof.

The Science of Taste – KQED QUEST

In addition to the strictly gustatory elements to the ‘taste’ of chocolate, there are the important effects of trigeminal nerve stimulation, ie. sensation of texture, pain or spice, and temperature, which are crucial to pleasure in eating. Additional elements, elaborated upon in the video above, concern not simply the olfactory, and other sensory data, but cognitive and emotional memories and associations – “enjoyment of emotions as summoned through imaginary or illusory images [as] central [to] pleasure” (Colin Campbell in Norton, p. 663). The totality of these elements together with ‘taste’ itself forms what is distinguished in the video therefrom as ‘flavour’.

In the consumption of a foodstuff there is major influence of other pre-coded aspects of human psychology, not simply immediate, tangible phenomenology – food developer Barb Stuckey argues that the sound of tempered chocolate cracking, qualitatively, is a key element in the presentation of, and in turn key to the preconceptions and thus eventual satisfaction a consumer has for, a chocolate product (Stuckey, p. 140). These ad hoc influences on one’s perception of a particular chocolate, if not ‘chocolate’ conceptually or behaviourally, add a great deal of complexity to the relationship of individuals to that particular object of consumption. And one’s enjoyment, indeed investment in, the momentary experience can be almost completely distracted, voided, or drained of pleasure (and thus likely otherwise altered or influenced) by dramatic ongoings in the environs – as described by Stuckey with regards how a couple’s spat at the next table utterly precluded her from investment or pleasure in her meal (pp. 132-133).

Given that the complexity of ‘flavour’ as a concept and experience is not limited to the concept or experience of chocolate alone, chocolate’s special status as an indulgence and yet in ubiquity, its elevation culturally, and enduring appeal have suggested some peculiarity thereto. As detailed at the start of this essay, there is not an agreed scientific explanation, indeed while there are a number of psychoactive chemicals such as phenylethylamine and methylxanthines caffeine and theobromine, as well as the serotonin-producing reservatrol and tryptophan, they all appear in far too low quantities to wholly explain widespread archetypes of the ‘chocoholic’ or the archetypal behaviour or ‘craving’ chocolate (Benton, pp. 209-212). A more comprehensive explanation is that the high correlation between pleasurable food intake and the release of endorphins, peptides which act on opioid receptors, is true of chocolate consumption (pp. 212-213). If one couples this with the dopamine activation described above then one can understand a major aspect of repeated chocolate consumption as dependent on one’s perception of chocolate as opposed to the inherent nature of the product itself – thus the great influence of information culturally conferred with regards to chocolate.

Multisensory factors do not end with those extrinsic elements of the experience, ie. the cultural context in which one consumes chocolate or the packaging and presentation, but extend to the temperature of the room one is in, the ambient noise-level, present company, weather, and so forth – and early experiences, within context, write scripts for future experiences in the associations they entail (Psychology Today). If one were to use the analogy of coffee and coffeeshops, the texture of the mug used, even the colour of that mug (Flavour Journal), the cultural construct of drinking from a mug at all, or indeed the fundamental construct that coffee, as opposed to maté or indeed chocolate, should be the warm beverage chosen; these are all examples of the complex psychology at play, influencing our perceptions and the manner in which we code concepts and behaviours memetically transmitted. In turn, those codifications inform the memes we pass on to others, here as pertains to our consumption patterns, in which the effects of theobromine content or ‘the catchy song playing in the background on the radio in the trendy coffeeshop where first I tried a white hot chocolate’ fade to one of legion infinitesimal inputs that construct the meme as it is held in the individual.


The counterpart to Plato’s mimesis, however, was diegesis, or ‘narrative’ (Stanford Online), and while this essay was intentionally aimed at deconstructing some of the intrinsic and extrinsic elements of chocolate as it is conceived and experienced, admittedly in a roundabout and haphazard fashion, it has been at the cost of any narrative sense as to what chocolate really is. Indeed, if one is to utterly debase and decentre one’s concept of what exactly a product is or should be – as has hopefully been achieved in this essay thus far – one is able to open consumers up (or is oneself opened up, dependent one’s role in the power dynamic in play) to the wholesale transfer (or adoption) of metanarratives. As so often becomes of highly mature consumer industries, as they slip towards conspicuous consumption and what one might term becoming ‘Veblen goods’ (pp. 33-48), there is developed a sense of ‘terroir’ and producers attempt to directly control the memetic transfer of conception as well as ritual, ie. all the multisensory facets to the psychological experience of consumption as detailed above. Thus there is the attempt to tailor experiences, alter transmission and construct the product, in this case chocolate, directly as opposed to leaving the interplay of transient socioeconomic, cultural, and biospherical factors reach equilibrium unaided.




Works Cited


Benton, David. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving”. Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2004.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2006 (3rd Ed).

Mintz, Sidney W.. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1985.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics”. The American Historical Review, pp. 660-691. Vol. 111, No. 3. 2006. Print.

Sulkunen, Pekka. “Society Made Visible: On the Cultural Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.” Acta Sociologica, pp. 103-115. Vol. 25, No. 2. 1982. Print.

Stuckey, Barb. Taste What You’re Missing. New York: Free Press, 2012.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Weinberg, Bennett A. and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. London: Routledge, 2002.




Web Sources


“Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee ?”, BioMed Central


“Kids under chronic stress more likely to become obese”, Cornell University


“The World’s Biggest Chocolate Consumers [Infographic]”, Forbes


“Epigenetic diet: impact on the epigenome and cancer”, NCBI


“Why do we crave chocolate so much?”, Psychology Today


“Plato’s Aesthetics”, Stanford Online


‘The Science of Taste – KQED QUEST’, YouTube


CVS: Chocolate Value Store

In a city square home to L.A. Burdick Chocolates and Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, one would not necessarily first select CVS for the purpose of purchasing chocolate products. However, as I commenced my chocolate crawl of Cambridge to analyze chocolate displays around Harvard Square, I realized I did not need to venture any further than CVS to encounter a chocolate emporium. Although CVS exhibits a vast variety of chocolate products, ranging from mass-produced, “Big 5” chocolate brands to more premium, craft chocolate brands, to appeal to consumers’ differing taste preferences and criteria for selecting and purchasing chocolate, I would contend that CVS more adeptly encourages consumers to purchase chocolate products through an economically-based methodology. In particular, by targeting consumers’ economic sensibilities through the prominent display and advertisement of sale prices and ExtraBucks reward promotions, CVS draws upon consumers’ desire to mitigate indulgent, “impulse buys” of chocolate products by emphasizing the sound economic advantages that result from purchasing their store’s chocolate products.

Before analyzing CVS’ economic methodology, it is productive to first provide a report of my field study’s findings on the CVS store located at 6 JFK Street. After entering CVS, I discovered that two of the four aisles on the store’s first floor are replete with chocolate. Aisle 3, which is labeled as “Bagged Candy” and “Candy,” contains shelf after shelf of chocolate products, most of which hail from the Big 5 chocolate companies. Colloquially known at the “Big Five,” Nestle, Mars, Cadbury, Hershey’s and Ferrero represent the largest chocolate companies in the world today (Martin and Sampeck 2016: 50). Along the shelves of Aisle 3 were products manufactured by Hershey’s, Nestle, Cadbury, and Mars in all varieties and size combinations, which ranged from multipacks of individually wrapped fun size bars to resealable snack packs to individual bars. The varying quantities of these packages indicate that consumers desire different size combinations, according to their particular needs and interests. For example, one consumer might be seeking a personal snack while another consumer might be interested in buying a multipack to share with other people.

An example of the yellow tags in Aisle 3 of CVS that advertise special sales prices and ExtraBucks rewards associated with chocolate purchases. 

In addition to the plethora of chocolate products available to consumers, the shelves of Aisle 3 also provide evidence of CVS’ economically-based marketing strategy: emphasis on sales and future monetary rewards. As part of its company, CVS promotes a customer rewards program, the ExtraCare program (https://www.cvs.com/extracare/home). Based upon their purchases at any CVS location, members of the ExtraCare program will receive ExtraBucks, a coupon with a monetary amount that can be applied to a future purchase. In the case of Aisle 3, certain chocolate products were eligible for both a sales promotion and ExtraBucks rewards. Bright yellow tags, which dangled from the aisle’s shelves, advertised that one could purchase 2 chocolate products at the reduced price of $6 and that such a purchase would generate $1 in ExtraBucks.

Aisle 4 of CVS, the “Seasonal” aisle, included a glut of Easter chocolate products, which were steeply discounted at 50% off clearance.

After this close observation of Aisle 3, I rounded the corner to Aisle 4 and encountered a continuation of chocolate displays. In particular, Aisle 4, the “Seasonal” aisle, featured displays of chocolate products and other candy items, mostly from the Big 5 brands, that were packaged and labeled for Easter, a holiday that occurred the weekend prior to this field study. These seasonal products disclose the marketing tactics of the Big 5 chocolate companies, which rebrand their products with special shapes (e.g. eggs), pastel packaging, and images synonymous with Easter (e.g. chicks and bunnies). The contents of Aisle 4 also underscored the vast quantity of chocolate on the market: even after the celebration of Easter, a holiday culturally-associated with the purchasing of candy and chocolate to fill Easter baskets, CVS still possessed a glut of Easter-specific chocolate products.

For the purposes of this field study, I also noticed the continuation of sales prices and economic incentives in Aisle 4. Larger, bright yellow tags placed perpendicular to the aisle’s shelves announced that the entirety of Aisle 4’s items were on clearance and 50% off. Although many of the chocolate products in Aisle 4 were exactly identical in taste and quality to those of Aisle 3—a Reese’s seasonal, egg-shaped candy has the exact same taste as a Reese’s peanut butter cup—the store granted the Easter products a special sale price because their packaging was no longer relevant and, more importantly, was no longer a compelling factor to make consumers purchase those particularized, Easter-appropriate items. Therefore, the economical advantage, rather than the packaging or seasonality, of purchasing these Easter chocolate products emerged as the chief marketing tool utilized by CVS to encourage consumer purchase.

The Brookside display appears at the end of Aisle 2 in CVS. Note the continuation of the yellow sales tags on this special chocolate display.

On the whole, my field study sensitized me to the pervasiveness of CVS’ sales tactics with regard to chocolate purchases. Indeed, the sales, discounts, and monetary rewards associated with the purchase of chocolate products extended well beyond the chocolate-specific aisles, Aisle 3 and Aisle 4. In meandering around the first floor, I also discovered two chocolate display cases that were distinct and separate from the aisles: a Brookside chocolate display and a “Premium Chocolates” display. Both displays consisted of a pop-up cardboard structure placed at opposite ends of Aisle 2, a strategic juncture that could, in turn, attract a consumer’s attention as he or she moved between or along aisles. The Brookside display seemed to align well with the contents of Aisle 2, the “Grocery” aisle, since it featured snack-type chocolate products, such as “Crunchy Clusters,” chocolate-covered almonds, and chocolate-covered dried fruits. In addition to these items, the Brookside display also featured bright yellow tags that announced the special rate of 2 chocolate products for $6.

In contrast to the snack-packaging of the Brookside display, the Premium Chocolate display included mostly individually-packaged bars from Lindt, Ghiradelli, Ferrero Roche, and Chuao, among other premium brands. Even those these brands were specially labeled as “premium” and therefore associated with luxury and higher cost, the “Premium Chocolate” display also featured the same bright yellow sales tags, which advertised the special rate of 2 chocolate bars for $5. Therefore, just as ubiquitous as the presence of chocolate products on the first floor of CVS was the presence of sales tags and special rates for chocolate products—the sales pricing did not discriminate based on chocolate quality but rather applied to Big 5 brands and premium brands alike.

The “Premium Chocolates” display at the end of Aisle 2. Even more premium brands, such as Lindt, Chocolove, and Endangered Species Chocolate, were subject to special sales prices.

Even if I had somehow managed to avoid the two aisles or two prominent displays of chocolate on the first floor, this CVS store ensured that I, along with every consumer, would encounter chocolate while waiting in line to make a purchase. On both the first floor and second floor, this CVS store possesses checkout lines, each of which is replete with shelves lined with individual candies and chocolate bars. The presence of chocolate in the CVS store is inextricably bound with the promise of savings: the individual chocolate bars at the checkout areas also benefited from sales promotions: 2 individual chocolate bars or candies for $3.

After completing my observational field study of this particular CVS location, I conducted research into CVS as a company. CVS, which stands for Consumer Value Stores, opened its first store in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1963; this first store exclusively sold health and beauty products (https://www.cvshealth.com/about/company-history). Although CVS brands itself as a pharmaceutical store, it has developed far beyond its origins as purely a purveyor of health and beauty products. Inherent to the company’s expansive, national growth has been its acquisition of other competing stores throughout the United States. As part of this nationalization of CVS as a franchise, CVS has also worked to secure consumer loyalty, especially through its emphasis on providing value to customers. In fact, CVS was the first national pharmacy retailer to launch a loyalty card program, the ExtraCare Card, which it established in 2001(https://www.cvshealth.com/about/company-history). Therefore, an understanding of CVS’ company history demonstrates its focus and commitment to consumer value, which it achieves through the employment of sales prices, special discounts, and ExtraCare membership rewards.

Based upon my field study of the Harvard Square CVS store and a fuller understanding of the CVS company history and programming, I derived a few salient impressions about CVS in relation to its marketing and selling of chocolate products.

CVS possesses a keen understanding of the current landscape of the chocolate market with regard to consumer taste, interests, and needs. According to Heike C. Alberts and Julie Cidell, the United States has been experiencing a “chocolate revolution” during the last few decades: American consumers have expanded their chocolate consumption “beyond traditional mass-market chocolate such as Hershey’s” and the other Big 5 companies to include “more premium chocolates…and more dark varieties” (Alberts and Cidell 2016). Stores like CVS have responded to meet this shift in taste among American consumers by stocking more premium chocolate brands, including European brands. Although European chocolates were “largely limited to specialty food stores and import stores” a few decades ago, European brands like Milka, Ritter Sport, and Lindt are now “available in many grocery stores, department stores such as Target and Walmart, and drugstores such as Walgreens and CVS” (Alberts and Cidell 2016). Although much of the CVS chocolate selection in Aisles 3 and 4 belongs to traditional mass-market chocolate brands, such as the Big 5 companies, the inclusion of brands like Lindt in the Premium Chocolate display at the Harvard Square CVS attests to the entrance of European brands into American markets and its increasing availability among these markets to include pharmacy stores like CVS.

In addition to Americans’ burgeoning interest in European chocolates and premium brands, American consumers have also begun to consider the social and ethical components of chocolate products. In response to the various ethical facets of cacao production, such as labor conditions, compensation, etcetera, many American consumers have been drawn to the fine chocolate market, which exhibits a “resistance” characterized by “a group force or momentum to link sensual enjoyment with ethical concern” (Martin and Sampeck 2016: 52). The fine chocolate market has been utilizing strategies, such as certification programs like Direct Trade and FairTrade, to demonstrate their companies’ commitment to rectifying social injustices. Such campaigns and endorsements speak to consumers’ desires to enjoy chocolate in an ethically and socially-conscious manner. For example, Endangered Species Chocolate, one of the brands available in the “Premium Chocolates” display of the Harvard Square CVS store, promises to donate 10% of net profits to its GiveBack Partners that help wildlife and endangered species (http://www.chocolatebar.com/?page_id=18). Thus, as observed at the Harvard Square CVS, CVS recognizes the differing tastes of chocolate consumers—brand name, perceived quality of products, and socially-conscious choices—and seeks to cater to their customers by selling a varied selection of products that will meet these consumer preferences.

In addition to recognizing the need to meet consumers’ broad spectrum of tastes, CVS also utilizes psychology to attract customers and promote chocolate purchases. In primarily pharmaceutical stores like CVS, the average customer does not necessarily visit with the express purpose of purchasing chocolate. Instead, chocolate purchases at CVS can be classified as “impulse buying,” which may be described as a spontaneous purchase bought “without thoughtful consideration why and for what reason a person should have the product” (Fennis and Stroebe 2010: 274). For example, CVS’ placement of its chocolate products at the checkout areas on both the first and second levels capitalizes upon this psychological understanding of consumer behavior because “chocolate bars and other tempting sweets are often displayed near the checkout counter when customers are distracted by thoughts about paying for their purchases” (Fennis and Stroebe 2010: 275).

In addition to encouraging a psychological response of impulse buying, CVS strategically situates chocolate displays to capitalize upon knowledge of the scientific, neurological basis of consumer behavior. In other words, CVS utilizes its displays as visual stimuli that can activate the neurological systems that motivate customers to purchase chocolate products. A 2014 scientific study entitled “Neural predictors of chocolate intake following chocolate exposure” utilized neuroimaging technology to verify how exposure to chocolate stimuli can predict the subsequent intake of chocolate (Frankort et al. 2014). In this study, participants were exposed to the smell of chocolate over the period of an hour and then shown images of chocolate (Frankort et al. 2014). Neuroimage results of this exposed group revealed that the brain regions involved in food reward, including the amygdala, striatum, hippocampus, insula, ventral tegmental area and substantia nigra, were activated by these external stimuli of chocolate and directly correlated with the later consumption of chocolate (Frankort et al. 2014). In essence, “neural correlates predict subsequent behavior (i.e. chocolate intake)” (Frankort et al. 2014). Based on such scientific evidence, there is a demonstrated neurological basis for chocolate consumption, which can be stimulated by external cues like the time of day and place (Benton 2004: 215). Therefore, customers at CVS who are stimulated by visual stimuli like chocolate displays have a greater likelihood of subsequently purchasing and consuming chocolate.

While these scientific and psychological aspects underlying consumers’ chocolate purchases are certainly important factors acknowledged and employed by CVS in its marketing strategy, I would contend that CVS utilizes economic incentives as the primary means of convincing customers to purchase chocolate.

This economic component complements and augments the psychology of chocolate purchasing. In particular, scientists and psychologists have determined that the phenomenon of impulse buying is “more likely for low priced products” (Fennis and Stroebe 275). Many of CVS’ chocolate products could be considered “low priced products” because they were part of a special sales promotions (2 for $6) and/or associated with the acquisition of future money-off coupons ($1 in ExtraBucks). As a result of transforming their chocolate products into low priced products through the use of economic marketing strategies, CVS increases the motivation of customers to act upon their psychological response of impulse buying. CVS’ use of economical savings as a marketing strategy to increase chocolate purchases proves a psychologically-astute method. Scientists have demonstrated that the “control motivation” consumers might attempt to exercise to prevent impulse buying is lowered when “the desirable items are not very expensive” (Fennis and Stroebe 2010: 275). In other words, consumer satisfaction resulting from saving money and making economically-sound purchases overpowers their control motivation and mitigates feelings of guilt that consumers might experience in buying chocolate products, which are often classified as luxurious, indulgent items. CVS makes luxury chocolate products, especially “premium” chocolate brands from Europe or brands with socially-conscious values, affordable to the masses.

In the broader historical context, chocolate has been inextricably bound with economics and social class. After its introduction to Europe, chocolate was primarily enjoyed by European elites; however, changes in the 1800s resulted in a broadening of the availability of chocolate. Due to the industrialization of food, including massive mechanization, retailing, and transportation changes, chocolate transformed from “an elite, expensive product” to “an inexpensive…low-cacao-content chocolate bar to be consumed as a food by elite and non-elite alike” (Martin and Sampeck 2016: 50). Given this democratization of chocolate, chocolate producers had to meet this new, increased demand, and, as a result, “large chocolate manufacturers became the producers of the majority of the world’s chocolate” (Martin and Sampeck 2016: 50). Chocolate became an industry that needed to market to different social sectors. Due to chocolate’s historical and intrinsic connection with socioeconomic class, CVS’ economically-based approach of sales prices, discounts, and other monetary incentives emerges as a very efficacious method for appealing to the different social statuses of customers.

In summary, this field study of the Harvard Square CVS store reveals the varying tactics and approaches a retail store may employ to encourage the purchase of chocolate products. While visual stimuli, such as chocolate displays, store layout, variety of products, and other tools may be utilized to promote chocolate purchasing, CVS employs an efficacious economic model to increase its chocolate sales. Truly hearkening to its roots as a Consumer Value Store, CVS convinces its customers that they can have their chocolate at a cost-effective price and eat it, too!



Alberts, Heike C. and Julie Cidell. 2016. “Chocolate Consumption, Manufacturing, and Quality in North America and Europe.” In The Economics of Chocolate, edited by Mara P. Squicciarini and Johan Swinnen, 119-133.

Benton, David. 2004. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” In Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain, edited by Astrid Nehlig, 205-216.

Fennis, Bob M. and Wolfgang Stroebe. 2010. The Psychology of Advertising.

Frankort, A. et al. 2015. “Neural predictors of chocolate intake following chocolate exposure.” Appetite 87: 98-107.

Martin, Carla and Kathryn Sampeck. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Presented at The Social Meaning of Food Workshop, The Institute for Sociology, Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, June 16-17, 2015, Budapest, Hungary.

Guilty Pleasure: Why Chocolate Makes Us Feel Bad

Retrieved from Dr. Brooke.


Utilized as everything from a delicious drink to a medicinal treatment, chocolate is incredibly diverse in nature. However, it was not always as widely accepted and enjoyed as it is today. In fact, there were some religious questions as to whether or not chocolate could be consumed and under what circumstances–some claimed that it was too indulgent to be permitted. In modern society, there definitely is an underlying sense of guilt associated with the consumption of chocolate confections and sweets. How is it that in an age where health and conscious eating govern all that a food associated with such guilt can be so lucratively successful? Where does this underlying sense of guilt come from? By considering the situation and perspectives on chocolate from its discovery until modern day, this issue will provide a lens through which we can develop a better understanding of the connection between religion and modern culture. Through the analysis of the psychology of guilt ,the history of chocolate, and the religious stance on its consumption over the years, this post will argue that the reason so many people associate eating chocolate with a feeling of guilt is based in its religious history.

Chocolate in Modern Society

Nestle Advertisement. Retrieved from Pintrest.

In order to understand where the idea of associating guilt with eating chocolate stems form, we must first understand how chocolate is viewed by society today. Some may argue that people do not actually feel guilty about consuming chocolate, but if that were the case then why does almost half the female population consume chocolate only in secret? (Hetherington and Macdiarmid, 237) What is most confusing about this trend is that it seems intuitive that if something were tied to guilt, humans would be less likely to consume that product. “It makes me feel bad about myself, so I will not engage in it,” is the seeming logic. However, multiple psychological studies have shown quite the opposite: guilt makes things more desirable. In fact, “experiencing the emotion of guilt can increase pleasure.” (Silverman, 2012) The idea that something can being perceived as guilty and desirable is the very root of many advertising campaigns. Researcher Kelly Goldsmith argues that if a product is labeled “guilt-free,” the pleasure experienced from consuming this good will most likely decrease. (Silverman, 2012) Therefore, chocolate producers use advertisements (such as the one above) that portray eating chocolate as a guilty activity. Notice the woman hiding behind the chocolate bar, not revealing her whole face. This reaffirms the idea that chocolate itself is a “guilty pleasure,” thus increasing the desirability of the product. These campaigns have been astronomically successful, as demonstrated by the fact that 94% of individuals say that chocolate is their most desired food. (Hetherington and Macdiarmid, 235) It is clear that chocolate not only comes with a sense of guilt, but this guilt is the very basis for why it is so appealing. This begs the question: what is the root of this guilt?


History of Chocolate in Europe

Raimundo Madruzo-Hot Chocolate. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

With an understanding of the association between chocolate and guilt, we can now delve into the historical roots of this sentiment. Although it is unclear exactly when chocolate was brought to Europe, it was most likely sometime between 1518 and 1530. (Coe and Coe, 129) Chocolate was consumed mainly as a drink, becoming an integral part of many social clubs. Considered a highly indulgent beverage, it was often served in “coffee-house” settings and consumed by upper class individuals (depicted to the right). The undeniable luxurious nature of this treat became the basis for a raging theological argument that began shortly after its discovery and introduction into European society.


Religious Response to the Discovery of Chocolate

As chocolate became more and more a part of European culture, there began to emerge some potential religious conflicts with the new sensation. Catholicism allows for one to drink water and wine on fast days. However, questions as to the status of chocolate in the context of fast days arose in 1577 when Dominican Friar Chiapas wrote to the Pope inquiring as to whether or not the new drink were permitted on such fast days. (Martin, Lecture 2) This topic was hotly debated for a half-century among priests. Not only did some priests have an issue with consuming chocolate beverage on fast days, but many claimed that it should not be permitted at all. Some postulated that its decadent nature and the fact that it was an inebriant could be of concern. While most religious authorities believed indulgences were permissible in moderation, some held that chocolate was too indulgent and should not be permitted at all.

Maya Cacao God. Retrieved from Cornell University.

Additionally, many of the Latin American indigenous groups, such as the Mayan and Aztec people, worshipped cacao gods, such as the one to the left. (Coe and Coe, 39) Because of this religious connection, some began to argue that chocolate was problematic for Christians because of its Pagan origins. While it was never explicitly deemed forbidden, chocolate was seen as a highly indulgent, luxurious treat. Given the fact that overindulgence and physical enjoyment were often looked down upon, this perception gradually led to the idea that allowing oneself to eat or drink chocolate signaled weakness and that was something to be embarrassed about.

Chocolate was not the only food that was associated with guilt. Although people really enjoyed the taste, sugar was initially considered problematic as well. This stemmed from the fact that it was considered highly indulgent and sweet. Some believed it was the root of hyper-sexuality and alcoholism and that those who consumed it would be equated to the “savages” from whom it was discovered. (Hamblin 2015) These negative traits coupled with the idea that overindulgence is a sin led to a very negative connotation surrounding sugar, and further, chocolate because it was such a vital ingredient. Another example of food playing such a significant role in European culture is the abstinence from meat on Fridays by Catholics. This is in commemoration of the fact that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in order to absolve humanity of its sins. (National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1966) Since meat is seen as an indulgence, not adhering to these norms would be considered weak, so people feel morally obligated to observe this guideline. Interestingly enough, this abstinence was recently reimplemented by the Catholic Church, bringing up ideas about food and guilt that had been dormant for generations. (Evans 2011)



Each year, Americans spend around $100 billion on chocolate alone. (Martin, Lecture 1) While this number is absolutely astounding on its own, it becomes even more magnificent when considering the negative feeling of guilt that our culture associates with indulgence, specifically surrounding chocolate. However, through an analysis of the historical roots of this guilt and the psychology behind that emotion itself, it becomes clear that not only does this guilt not hurt consumption, but actually drives it up exponentially. Interestingly enough, the chocolate industry has none other than the Catholic Church to thank for their lucrative success worldwide because their disapproval of indulgence is what created the sense of guilt we experience today when consuming chocolate. As Professor Dhar says, “in every instance, we found that those who felt guilty experienced the greatest enjoyment.”(Dhar, 2013) At the end of the day, this is what we all want—to enjoy ourselves. So go grab a bar of chocolate and let the guilt sink in.



Coe, Sophie D., Coe, Michael D. “The True History of Chocolate.” Thames & Hudson. (2013).

Dhar, Ruvi. “The Pleasure of Guilt.” Yale University. (January 17, 2013). Retrieved from http://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/the-pleasure-of-guilt.

Evans, Martin. “Catholics told to abstain from eating meat on Fridays.” The Telegraph. (May 14, 2011). Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8512721/Catholics-told-to-abstain-from-eating-meat-on-Fridays..html.

Hamblin, James. “Purity Through Food: How Religious Ideas Sell Diets.” The Atlantic. (May 1, 2015). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/05/the-puritanical-approach-to-food/392030/.

Hetherington, Marion M., Macdiarmid, Jennifer I. Chocolate Addiction”: a Preliminary Study of its Description and its Relationship to Problem Eating. University of Dundee. (1993). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marion_Hetherington/publication/15056851_Chocolate_Addiction_a_Preliminary_Study_of_its_Description_and_its_Relationship_to_Problem_Eating/links/564a2d7108ae127ff98686bb.pdf.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” Lecture presented at AAAS 119x Lecture in CGIS, Cambridge. (2017, February 1).

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” Lecture presented at AAAS 119x Lecture in CGIS, Cambridge. (2017, February 8).

“Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinance.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (November 18, 1966). Retrieved from http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/us-bishops-pastoral-statement-on-penance-and-abstinence.cfm.

Silverman, Rosa. “Chocolate-it’s the guilt that makes it so delicious, study finds.” The Telegraph. (December 8, 2012). Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/9731303/Chocolate-its-the-guilt-that-makes-it-so-delicious-study-finds.html.

Advertising, Psychology, and Fair Trade

It is interesting, and often undervalued, what factors go into the decision-making process when consumers buy chocolate. Although it is often a subconscious process, a typical chocolate consumer unknowingly takes many elements into account before purchasing a chocolate bar. Undoubtedly, factors such as price comparisons, taste and ingredients, consumer preferences, and reputation of chocolate companies play a dominant role in these decisions. This partially explains how companies like the Big 5 have been so successful in integrating their products into many populations. These companies pride themselves in creating brand loyalty, or a “cradle to grave” attitude among consumers (Martin, Lecture 12). This was evident in Hershey’s attempt to become the iconic American chocolate by aligning their advertisements with American values (Martin, Lecture 12). Furthermore, they have been able to maximize profits by diminishing production costs, allowing them to sell their products at a lower price. As a result, these companies and their products have become globalized and they are all known to have a reputation of producing easily accessible, affordable chocolate.

However, a growing concern in the chocolate industry surrounds the cacao-chocolate supply chain and emphasizing the necessity for ‘ethically based cacao’ (Barrientos, 2006). This term applies to a broad range of topics including environment sustainability, fair treatment of cacao farmers, and direct contact with workers (Barrientos, 2006). These concerns arose mainly from speculations of unfair treatment of workers and exploitation of children in West African cacao regions, such as Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire (Martin, Lecture 15). In response, various certifications have arisen that attempt to motivate chocolate companies to engage in these efforts. The three main ones are organic, fair trade, and direct trade certifications. Fair trade and direct trade certifications are similar in that they both address fair treatment and pay of farmers (Barrientos, 2006). However, some argue that direct trade is a better alternative to fair trade as it addresses many of the critiques associated with fair trade. Organic certification, on the other hand, stipulates that produce has to have been grown without the use of pesticides or other fertilizers (Martin, Lecture 18).

There are now multiple chocolate companies that make a conscious effort to obtain these certifications. They identify themselves as ‘ethically sourced’ and attempt to target consumers who wish to purchase chocolate that not only tastes good, but also is ethically produced (Barrientos, 2006). However, one of the main problems with these companies is that their products are often more expensive since their production costs are higher and they are paying a premium to farmers (Martin, Lecture 18). Furthermore, there has been some controversy over the certifications themselves and whether there is accountability in some of their promises (Martin, Lecture 18). This raises some interesting questions: are consumers thinking about these issues when they make purchasing decisions? What are the tradeoffs between cost and ethics? And most importantly, what influences consumers to choose ethically sourced chocolate bars over other chocolate bars?

The challenges associated with motivating consumers to buy ethically sourced chocolate is a major barrier that companies face when producing certified chocolate bars. In order to make an impact in relation to the cacao-chocolate supply chain, the consumer has to be willing to purchase the products. The efforts of fair and direct trade chocolate companies don’t summate to anything if no one is purchasing their products. If one were to turn to the success of the Big 5 chocolate companies, they have attracted consumers primarily through advertising and marketing strategies. Since direct trade chocolate companies have additional barriers, such as inflated costs, marketing their products is even more critical to their success. As such, I would argue that the sole placement of the term ‘ethically sourced’ on a chocolate bar is not sufficient to sway the typical chocolate consumer to buy their products over a ‘more affordable’ option. Instead, these companies need to both focus on ethically based initiatives and also enable a way to connect with consumers to establish the same brand loyalty that is seen among the Big 5 chocolate companies. Thus, when it comes to influencing consumer decisions, the most impactful companies will be able to both prioritize direct trade relationships over profits as well as find an effective way to advertise their brand to appeal to the general consumer.

The importance of advertising can be assessed by closely examining a direct trade chocolate company, and gauging its overall impact on both the main issues of fair trade and of gaining consumer interest. If these two components are addressed, direct trade chocolate companies will be more successful and influential overall.

Taza Chocolate Factory is situated in Somerville, MA and was founded in 2005 by Alex Whitmore (“TAZA chocolate”, 2012). Taza chocolate-makers pride themselves in producing “stone ground, organic chocolate” (“TAZA chocolate”, 2012). From the beginning, Taza’s mission was “to make and share stone ground chocolate that is seriously good and fair for all” (“TAZA chocolate”, 2012).

The process of making Taza chocolate is relatively unique compared to other US companies. First, they use solely organic products and aim to include as few ingredients as possible. This is meant to enhance the flavors of cacao as well as promote environment sustainability (“TAZA chocolate”, 2012). Their chocolate is also unconched, giving it a grainy/course texture. This is interesting as most chocolate these days undergoes a conching process, so this aspect creates a distinctive tasting experience for consumers.

Taza chocolate was the first in the USA to establish direct trade certification. They have partnered with La Red Guaconejo, a cooperative of cacao farmers that is based in the Dominican Republic (“TAZA chocolate”, 2012). They pay a premium to these farmers upon the sale of cacao beans and make an effort to visit these cacao farms at least once per year. In order to ensure accountability, Taza chocolate produces a transparency report once a year that provides a detailed account of their impact on the cacao industry (“TAZA chocolate”, 2012). This report is highly visual and makes it easy for consumers to understand.

Some of the more valuable components of these reports are the pictures of Taza workers with the cacao farmers. These pictures really emphasize Taza’s direct relationship with cacao farmers and presents the farmers as valuable members of their business. Since the challenges associated with cacao farming are often ignored or not revealed to consumers, these pictures provide meaningful insight to a crucial element of the chocolate-making process.

As indicated, Taza chocolate claims to be ethically sourced in two respects. First, they claim to only use organic ingredients in their recipes and second, they are direct trade certified. What makes Taza chocolate stand out, however, is their high accountability and transparency to consumers, which builds a reputation in the product. While Taza’s efforts address some of the cacao-supply chain issues, the problem of attaining consumer interest still remains.

There has certainly been more interest in buying ethically sourced products. As Low and colleagues (2005) state, fair trade sales are continually growing and it is evolving to become more mainstream. They describe this shift as an ethical consumer movement, where the consumer has the ability to create positive change by choosing one good over another (Low & Davenport, 2005). Given this rise in popularity, they emphasize the importance of building fair trade brands and marketing their products to consumers (Low & Davenport, 2005). On average, a typical consumer spends about 4 seconds examining a shelf before making a purchasing decision (Low & Davenport, 2005). In this time, they are likely not considering the details of each company, but rather choosing products based on the labels and taste preferences.

While people enjoy the idea of being an ethical consumer, they are not always willing to incur the additional costs associated with it. An average Taza chocolate bar sells for about $7.50, whereas a regular-sized Hershey’s bar sells for about $1.00 (“TAZA Chocolate”, 2012; “The Hershey’s Company”, n.d.). This is a significant gap between prices. This means that there has to be additional incentives to purchase fair trade chocolate. As such, in order to compete with the sales of the Big 5 companies, fair trade companies like Taza need to be able to effectively advertise their products to the public.

If we look to the success of companies like Hershey’s, it has become such an iconic brand in the USA because they are able to align themselves with mainstream values. This is commonly displayed in their advertisements as they integrate elements of taste and pleasure to create a sense of desire among consumers. That way, consumers are primed to crave Hershey’s chocolate before they even step into the store.

For example, in their S’mores Around The Campfire commercial, it takes a popular social gathering and makes it seem more appealing with the addition of a Hershey’s chocolate bar.

The ad features adults and children, all smiling, and sitting around a campfire enjoying a s’more that is made complete with a Hershey bar. It plays on elements of taste by capturing people biting into the s’more as well as showing close up shots of the construction of the s’more. Even though it’s only a 15 second clip, it builds an association with a pleasurable event that consumers can draw on when making purchasing decisions.

If fair trade chocolate companies could integrate similar marketing strategies, consumers could build positive associations with the product, which would ultimately increase the likelihood of buying their products. As of now, Taza chocolate company does market their brand in some respects. They have online videos that are meant to increase brand awareness and make consumers aware of their story.

These videos are targeted toward the ethical consumer and are meant primarily to be educational. In the first video, the viewer is taken through a brief story of the creation of Taza chocolate. This video is interesting as there is no script, just festive music playing in the background.

The second video, on the other hand, focuses on children and educates them on the processes that go into making the chocolate. Both these videos were likely created with the intention of raising awareness and maintaining their image of transparency.

However, both these videos lack the psychological elements that implicitly draw consumers to chocolate. David Benton (2004) states that the consumption and craving for chocolate is highly psychological. Eating chocolate is a very emotional process and is often craved due to its association with mood elevation (Benton, 2004). Given this knowledge, it seems as though the implementation of psychological elements in advertising is necessary to attract a wide consumer-base.

In sum, the increase in direct trade initiatives is positively impacting the cacao-supply chain in numerous ways. Companies, such as Taza Chocolate, have been able to generate more interest in ethically sourced cacao and sustain relationships with their cacao-supplying nations. However, while fair trade companies excel at portraying these efforts to consumers, they lack in their ability to directly relate and incentivize their brands over others. Since marketing and advertising has a tremendous effect on consumer purchasing decisions, improving in this area would likely lessen the discrepancy in profits between the Big 5 chocolate companies and fair trade companies. Thus, the ability to influence consumer decisions plays a big role in the success of chocolate companies, and is an area that is lacking in the fair trade industry.

Works Cited

  1. Barrientos, S. (2006). Transformation of Global Food: Opportunities and Challenges for Fair and Ethical Trade. In Ethical sourcing in the global food system. Sterling, VA: Earthscan.
  2. Benton, D. (2004). The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving. Nutrition, Brain and Behavior, 205-218.
  3. Chocolate Products, Recipes, Nutrition Information. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from http://www.hersheys.com
  4. Low, W., & Davenport, E. (2006). Has the medium (roast) become the message?: The ethics of marketing fair trade in the mainstream. International Marketing Review, 494-511. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from http://www.emeraldinsight.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/doi/full/10.1108/02651330510624354
  5. Martin, C. (2015, March 9). The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market. AAAs 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food . Lecture conducted from , Cambridge.
  6. Martin, C. (2015, March 25). Modern Day Slavery. AAAS 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food . Lecture conducted from , Cambridge.
  7. Martin, C. (2015, April 6). Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization. AAAS 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food . Lecture conducted from , Cambridge.
  8. Taza Chocolate | stone ground chocolate. (2012). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from http://www.tazachocolate.com

Multimedia Sources

  1. Curious George Visits The Chocolate Factory, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MY_wD10tszA
  1. Hershey’s “S’mores Around the Campfire” Commercial, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGRAmQeu2xo
  2. Taza Workers and Cacao Farmers, Image http://www.tazachocolate.com/documents/image/DirectTrade.jpg
  1. The Taza Chocolate Story, 2012.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tcA51tUOxU