Forbidden Flavors: Scientists Consider How Disgusting Tastes Can Linger Surreptitiously in Memory

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, March 29, 1997 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Forbidden Flavors: Scientists Consider How Disgusting Tastes Can Linger Surreptitiously in Memory

Bower, Bruce, Science News

John Garcia relishes the story he heard as a child about how his mother came to detest that most vaunted of sweets, chocolate. Just before taking a boat voyage at age 3, she contentedly ate several chocolate candies. While on board later that day, she became terribly seasick and vomited. From then on, she found the taste of chocolate abhorrent, even though the grown-up Mrs. Garcia knew that chocolate treats do not cause seasickness.

Working on farms and ranches in Northern California as a youth, Garcia heard more stories of food aversions caused by illness-these occurring in a different corner of the animal world. If a coyote or other wild creature eats poisoned bait and survives, the budding scientist was told, it never again picks up bait. As a result, older predators prove nearly impossible to kill with standard baits.

It seems fitting, therefore, that Garcia's more than 40-year career in psychology has revolved around the study of such taste retreats. He refers to the behavior as conditioned taste aversion, but many animal investigators call it simply the Garcia effect.

In brief, creatures up and down the food chain readily associate nausea or other bodily signs of illness with the taste of what they have most recently consumed. That flavor is then shunned, often after only the initial bad experience. What's more, the effect ensues with equal force whether nausea strikes a few minutes or many hours after a tainted snack or slurp.

Garcia's research sparked intense controversy in the 1960s and 1970s because it contradicted the basic tenets of psychologist B.F. Skinner's then-dominant radical behaviorism. Skinner held that general laws of learning shape the behavior of all animals, regardless of a particular creature's evolutionary history or biological makeup. In contrast, Garcia argues that an animal is a "biased learning machine" designed by evolutionary forces to forge meaningful links between some stimuli but not others.

According to Skinner's theory, food or any other reinforcing stimulus consistently made available after a random behavior-any act fancied by the experimenter-renders that behavior inevitable whenever the stimulus reappears. Pigeons trained to obtain food pellets by pecking at keys whenever a light above the keys was turned on came to symbolize the power of Skinnerian reinforcement.

Garcia, now 79 and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, presented an alternative view that has moved from the fringes to the mainstream of animal research. The confection rejection exhibited by Garcia's mother derived not from random learning but from evolutionary influences that yielded gut-level mechanisms for expelling poisons from the body. Skinner's pigeon experiments did not produce key pecking from scratch, Garcia contends. In hitting the keys with their beaks, the pigeons employed their natural feeding behavior-pecking at bits of grain or other goodies.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov laid the foundation for current strains of taste aversion research. Getting hungry dogs to drool at the sound of a bell is one type of biologically based learning; taste aversion is another.

"I originally got into a lot of trouble in psychology for studying conditioned taste aversions, but this has become a broad and very exciting area of research," Garcia remarks.

The exploration of taste aversions has expanded to include efforts to ward off wild predators from livestock without killing the carnivores, to chart animals' social communication about food aversions, to explore hormonal sensitivities that may push some teenage girls toward self-starvation and anorexia, and to identify brain structures essential for tagging selected flavors as forbidden.

Garcia's research also inspires psychologists now investigating central realms of human knowledge and learning, such as categorizing local animals and plants (SN: 11/16/96, p. 308) and detecting people who cheat on mutually beneficial agreements (SN: 1/29/94, p.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Forbidden Flavors: Scientists Consider How Disgusting Tastes Can Linger Surreptitiously in Memory


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?