If your appetizer is delicious, you probably won’t enjoy the main course as much as you would if it was so-so, and it all comes down to hedonics (a branch of psychology that deals with pleasant and unpleasant states of consciousness) and sensory evaluation (a part of food science dedicated to understanding human sensory responses to foods).

Drexel researchers tested this theory out by testing volunteers’ hedonic (liking) responses to a main dish of pasta with garlic and oil after they had first had either a good or mediocre bruschetta appetizer. The good bruschetta was made with extra ingredients like balsamic vinegar and lemon zest, as well as fresher and better quality ingredients, like extra virgin oil and fresh basil compared to the blended olive oil and dried basil in the mediocre bruschetta.

The good bruschetta was judged better than the mediocre bruschetta, but the pasta dish was liked more when preceded by the mediocre appetizer. One possible explanation for this is that the very nature of the appetite-whetting first dish sways the consumer to compare it with the following courses, to the latter’s potential detriment.

“It’s always worth remembering that our experiences are contextual — that is, what we like and don’t like, or taste and don’t taste, is not objective, but related to the environment, our state of mind, and many other variables. If you have a fantastic appetizer and then the main seems lackluster, that could be because of this type of contrast effect. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fantastic appetizers!” said Jacob Lahne, PhD, an assistant professor in the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management at Drexel University.

Findings of this study are published in the journal Food Quality and Preference.

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