The nature and acquisition of a preference for chili pepper by humans
This paper deals with the general problem of the acquisition of positive affective responses, by study of the reversal of an innate aversion to the irritant properties of chili pepper. Interviews, observations, and measurements were carried out in both Mexico and the United States. Exposure to gradually increasing levels of chili in food seems to be a sufficient condition for preference development. Chili likers are not insensitive to the irritation that it produces. They come to like the same burning sensation that deters animals and humans that dislike chili; there is a clear hedonic shift. This could be produced by association with positive events, including enhancement of the taste of bland foods, postingestional effects, or social rewards. It is also possible that the initial negative response to chili pepper is essential for the eventual liking. Chili stimulates an innate sensory “warning” system but is not harmful. The enjoyment of the irritation may result from the user's appreciation that the sensation and the body's defensive reaction to it are harmless. Eating of chili, riding on roller coasters, taking very hot baths, and many other human activities can be considered instances of thrill seeking or enjoyment of “constrained risks.” Evidence for and against various explanations of chili ingestion is presented.