Dial Coffee Stains

Do you like coffee or do you just want it? Put another way, do you drink coffee for the pleasure of it or is it something more functional, something associated with the addictive qualities of caffeine? A new study finds that “heavy coffee drinkers” want coffee more than they actually like drinking it.

The premise is absurd of course. Coffee in all forms is delicious, and if you don’t like an objectively good tasting thing, then you are on the side of evil and may god have mercy on your soul. But let’s humor these Cubik's Rubes for a bit.

As reported by The Ladders, the study was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology and is the product a team of researchers led by Nicolas Koranyi at the University of Jena in Germany. To determine whether one’s coffee affinities are need- or enjoyment-based, researchers had 56 German students—24 “heavy” coffee drinkers, those who have three or more cups a day, and 32 “low/non-consumers,” who have one or fewer a day—complete two versions of an Implicit-Association Test (IAT). This type of test used in social psychology to “detect the strength of a person's subconscious association between mental representations of objects (concepts) in memory,” per Wikipedia. The test works by showing participants words or images on a screen and then asking participants to categorize them using specific keys on a keyboard. The amount of time it takes for participants to correctly categorize the images, according to Psychological Science, “[sheds] light on the mental associations they make, even when they aren’t aware of them.”

To determine how much they “liked” coffee, subjects were shown images of juice and coffee and then positive or negative images, like puppies or human skulls, and asked to categorize them. The researchers would then compare the speeds at which subjects were able to correctly categorize instances when coffee and positive images shared a key verse when coffee and negative images shared a key.

For “want”, subjects were again shown images of coffee and juice but this time were inter-spliced with images of numbers and letters, with the prompt to respond with the “want” key for numbers and the “don’t want” key for letters and were incentivized to get the answers correct with a small amount of money for each one they got right. As with the previous test, the speed with which participants would be able to correctly identify coffee and “want” using the same key and coffee and “not want” with the same key would be compared to find each subject’s implicit need for coffee.

After comparing the results from the two tests, researchers found that heavy coffee drinkers showed an increase in their want for coffee over non/low-consumers but not in their like of it.

These data confirm that heavy coffee consumption is associated with strong wanting despite low liking for coffee, indicating that wanting becomes independent from liking through repeated consumption of caffeine.

This, according to researchers, seems to suggest that folks consume coffee more out of addiction than enjoyment and could provide a “possible explanation for the widespread and stable consumption of caffeine-containing beverages.” Other than, you know, coffee being good. They go on to posit that one’s addiction to coffee is more quantitatively than qualitatively different than an addiction to cocaine or alcohol, the same but less essentially.

It should be noted that the IAT is a bit of a controversial method. A brief glance at Wikipedia on the subject finds some experts claiming the IAT “has been interpreted as assessing familiarity… or mere cultural knowledge irrespective of personal endorsement of that knowledge.” A New York Times article notes that “there isn't even that much consistency in the same person's scores if the test is taken again.”

And frankly, I'm not gonna let some scientist tell me what my brain thinks. Only I get to tell me what my brain thinks. And it thinks coffee is infinitely wonderful and I desire it purely for its blissful self with no outside compulsion required. But also I want it. Like, yesterday.

Zac Cadwalader is the managing editor at Sprudge Media Network and a staff writer based in Dallas. Read more Zac Cadwalader on Sprudge.