The Psychological Case for Instagramming Your Food

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Photo: Konstantin Trubavin/Corbis

The most important thing about a good food picture, as any amateur food photographer can tell you, is natural light. It’s why you can find particularly determined patrons of the food-photography arts looking like lost waiters — carrying plates of food to nearby windows just to take a picture. If there is no natural light, there is always the option of flash. And don’t forget about angles and composition. Capturing a full Sunday-brunch spread is near impossible to do while sitting down, so you might as well stand up, maybe even on your chair to shoot from above. If you’re particularly concerned about it, you could bring a handful of GorillaPods — those miniature tripods with flexible legs — and assemble them on your table to act as your own personal photographer.

Whatever route you end up taking, take comfort in knowing it has all been done before — there is now, in fact, an entire television series on FYI called Food Porn, dedicated solely to chronicling the world’s most Instagrammed dishes. And yet the quest toward the perfect #foodgasm shot remains undeniably obnoxious and disruptive to other diners just trying to live like it’s 2007. You know this, but chances are you often do it anyway. Now new research published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing suggests why: The act of taking a picture before eating — including all of the natural-light seeking and angle tweaking that goes into it — can actually make food taste better.

The research included three studies with more than 120 participants in each. The first investigated the effects of photographing food before consumption, and assigned participants to one of four conditions: take or don’t take a picture of healthy food before eating it, and take or don’t take a picture of indulgent food before eating it. The indulgent were given red velvet cake; the healthy, fruit salad. The results showed that those made to take a picture of red velvet cake perceived it to be tastier and more pleasurable than those who did not take a picture of the same cake. There was no perceived difference in taste for those made to photograph or not photograph healthy food.

For the second study, the researchers wanted to further explore the difference between photographed healthy and indulgent foods. Participants were given the same red velvet cake — branded either as being indulgent or more healthful — and asked to photograph it. They found, maybe unsurprisingly, that participants led to believe their cake was made with rich ingredients like decadent cream-cheese frosting — essentially rendering it the opposite of diet food — rated it higher than those told the cake was made with applesauce, egg whites, and low-fat frosting.

But the third study is where the perceived difference between healthy and indulgent foods began to converge. The researchers found that once consumers are made aware of the fact that others are also eating healthy foods, taking a picture of healthy food before eating can also lead to higher evaluations of the food. In other words, looking through #cleaneating pictures of açai bowls and kale smoothies on Instagram could actually trick you into enjoying açai bowls and kale smoothies more than you otherwise would. 

This happens because seeing others publicize their own healthy choices makes eating healthy look more desirable. When we photograph our own #cleaneating pictures, we end up delaying taking part in the desirable act of eating healthy, building anticipated pleasure for what might otherwise seem like a bowl of green gloop. Something similar happens while taking a picture of a mountain of chili cheese fries or a steak. The only difference is that, in these situations, what we’re likely anticipating is the desirable flavor more than the virtuous act itself.

But regardless of whether a meal is healthy or not, food photography ultimately boils down to the same process: You’re interacting with what’s on you plate. There are camera angles, lighting, composition, and the placement of forks and knives to consider. All of this takes time and puts off any actual eating that might otherwise be happening, building anticipation for what’s to come. When you do eventually go to take that first bite, the experience ends up tasting that much sweeter.

The link between increased satisfaction and photography explains why someone who has grown accustomed to the ritual of taking pictures of their food might be increasingly inclined to whip out their smartphone at the dinner table. Photographed and digitally shared food is, in a sense, tastier than its undocumented counterparts, and forgoing the practice could make an avid ’grammer feel like something intangible is missing.

The findings are in line with a collection of studies published in the journal Psychological Science in 2013 that also found delaying eating by performing a short ritual — regardless of how mundane the ritual may be — positively influences our perception of the food on our plates. One experiment found participants given a chocolate bar with strict instructions on how to handle and unwrap the bar before eating ended up savoring the chocolate more, rating it higher, and being willing to pay more for it than those told to relax and eat the chocolate bar at their leisure. The researchers observed that a longer delay between ritual and consumption bolstered these positive effects, but that delaying consumption through random movements did not yield the same results. Only repeated, episodic, and fixed behaviors were capable of changing the perception of food.

That repeated, episodic, and fixed behavior necessary for greater eating enjoyment perfectly describes the process of photographing a meal for the ’gram: Retrieve smartphone, position plate, snap a handful of shots, and pray that one of them will be good enough to post. More often than not, there is an unspoken urgency to the practice. The meal is getting cold, and your fellow diners are waiting — not to mention silently willing you to sit down and stop embarrassing them with your millennial sensibilities. And, maybe most important, you also want to eat the delicious-looking food laid out in front of you. But none of this matters because the method is always the same: Photograph and delay gratification, which, in turn, makes the food seem more delicious.

In short: Perhaps the only thing more irritating than the act of public food photography is knowing that those walking their $16 plates of eggs Benedict over to a window could be getting more out of their dining experience than you.