MELBOURNE — If you’re trying to cut back on your coffee addiction, but you still need that midday caffeine buzz to help you get through work, all you need to do is spend a couple mindful minutes inside your local coffee shop. That’s because a new study finds just the smell of coffee alone is enough to improve focus in people who regularly enjoy a hot cup or two.
The new findings by psychology and business researchers at Monash University in Australia and Toronto University in Canada show how the placebo effect coffee provides with its aroma, its appearance, and even the sounds made along with it can still heighten ambition, focus, and arousal without consuming the beverage at all.
“As long as individuals see a connection between coffee and arousal, whatever its origin may be, mere exposure to coffee-related cues might trigger arousal in and of themselves without ingesting any form of caffeine,” says co-author Dr. Eugene Chan, senior lecturer in marketing at the Monash Business School, in a statement.
“Smelling coffee gives rise to the beverage’s psychoactive, arousing effects. This is because the brains of habitual coffee consumers are conditioned to respond to coffee in certain ways, as per the prominent Pavlov’s dog theory,” adds Chan. “So walking past your favorite café, smelling the odors of coffee grounds, or even witnessing coffee-related cues in the form of advertising can trigger the chemical receptors in our body enough for us to obtain the same arousal sensations without consumption.”
For the study, researchers exposed 871 participants from both Western and Eastern cultures to coffee- and tea-related cues in four separate experiments. The cues were designed to make participants think of the beverage and the caffeine it carries without ingesting it.
The study was built on a psychological effect called “mental construal,” which determines how people think and process information and whether they focus on narrow details or the “bigger picture.” The results of the study showed that priming individuals with coffee cues like images, smells, and sounds associated with coffee increased their alertness, energy levels, heart rate, and narrowed their focus.
The authors say that the findings could indicate that even having a cup of decaf could help those looking for a boost in productivity.
“This study could even help to explain how drinking decaffeinated coffee can produce faster reaction times on tasks. Perhaps the mental association between coffee and arousal is so strong that it can produce cognitive changes even where there’s no caffeine ingestion physiologically,” says Chan. “This adds to the growing amount of literature documenting that the foods we eat and the beverages we drink do more than simply provide nutrition or pleasure – mere exposure to, or reminders of them, affect how we think.”
Chan completed the research with Sam Maglio, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Toronto.
The study was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.