“Say it with chocolate,” goes the ad – but what are you really saying? We imbue objects with all sorts of meanings, especially around the holidays. A new study by Cornell psychology researchers finds that the closer to Valentine’s Day we get, the more chocolates – and red roses – spell out “l-o-v-e.”
“Most people like chocolates and roses,” said Vivian Zayas, associate professor of psychology, “but as Valentine’s Day approaches, people like them a lot more, and we think this increase in positivity occurs because these objects are strongly associated with love in U.S. culture. As far as I know, ours is the first study to show that shared meaningful events that occur naturally in a culture, like Valentine’s Day, affect our evaluations of everyday common objects, a phenomenon we call ‘naturally occurring cultural priming.’”
Zayas, and co-authors doctoral student Gayathri Pandey and Joshua Tabak ’09, asked a diverse group of people from across the country to evaluate images of red roses and gift chocolates between Feb. 3-14, 2015. As a comparison, participants were also asked to evaluate an image of an ad for an online dating site. They found that as Valentine’s Day neared, people evaluated red roses and gift chocolates more favorably. Evaluations of the online dating product did not change, probably because online dating products are not necessarily symbols of love itself.
“When making evaluative judgments, people do not simply bring to mind a static attitude from memory,” the researchers noted in their paper, which published Feb. 14 in Frontiers in Psychology. “Instead, judgments are constructed at the moment, shaped by a variety of chronic and temporary influences.”
The authors reasoned that as Valentine’s Day nears, people judge roses and chocolates not simply as everyday objects but based on their associations with love, and this is why they are judged more favorably. In a separate study, the researchers found that how strongly an object was associated with love predicted the extent to which it was judged favorably. They wrote: “The greater an object’s association with the concept love, the more positively the object is judged. Because the concept love itself is hugely positive, this in turn results in heightened positive evaluations for objects associated with love.”
As a way of quantifying the cultural relevance of roses and chocolates in the U.S. at Valentine’s Day, the researchers also analyzed data using Google Trends, which provides the volume of web searches for a particular term during a given time frame and in a given area. Like clockwork, every year between 2004 to 2016, searches for “roses” and “chocolates” went up as Valentine’s Day approached. And, in 2015, the year the researchers conducted the study, the number of searches for roses and chocolates positively correlated with the increase in their positive evaluation during that time period.
“Given the rise in popularity of Anti-Valentine’s Day parties, we initially thought that not everyone would respond similarly to Valentine’s Day. For example, we thought that some groups, like people who are single and not interested in dating, might not show this effect,” said Zayas. “So, we were surprised to find that both men and women, and people of all relationship statuses and age groups (from 18 to 65 plus years old), showed a similar increase in positive attitude toward chocolates. This suggests that the effect of Valentine’s Day on evaluations of roses and chocolates are culturally shared associations, rather than reflecting individual experiences with Valentine’s Day. … although Valentine’s Day is associated with romantic relationships, friends and family members also celebrate the holiday.”
The same was true for red roses, except for respondents aged 18-24 years, who tended to view roses positively even prior to Valentine’s Day. This raises the question whether young adults begin to think about Valentine’s Day even earlier, or whether they are thinking about love more often.
The researchers’ studies demonstrate that “culturally meaningful events” – like Valentine’s Day – can change people’s judgments of objects, so that everyday objects are viewed in a different light depending on the context and time that they are encountered.
Linda B. Glaser is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.