What Loving (Or Hating) Spicy Food Says About You

Your mouth may feel like it's on fire when you bite into a pepper, but the temperature of your mouth doesn't actually increase. (Photo: Aneta_Gu/Shutterstock).

Whether you're the type of person who shuns spice of any kind or the type who adds hot sauce to everything, that preference reveals something about you.

In fact, your love for hot wings and Atomic Fireballs could offer clues to your personality, your culture and even your gender.

Some Like It Hot

The burning sensation you experience when you bite into a pepper is caused by a pain receptor known as TRPV1 reacting to capsaicin, the active chemical in chilis. TRPV1 regulates heat exposure, and when it's activated, it tells your brain that your mouth is too hot.

However, while your mouth may feel like it's on fire, there's no actual increase in temperature. It's simply chemical trickery.

But why do some people enjoy the burn while others can't stand it?

John Hayes, director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Pennsylvania State University, hypothesized that those who dislike spicy food are those who are most sensitive to the burning sensation.

He tested this by providing study participants with sample cups of water that contained increasing amounts of capsaicin, and his team found that people who reported enjoying the burn ate more spicy food and weren't as sensitive to the heat.

"We're not sure if that means that biologically they're not getting as much of a response, or if they’re desensitized, or if they are the type of person who went skydiving the day before, so the burn of capsaicin in relation to the rush of adrenalin doesn’t rate that high," Hayes' colleague Nadia Byrnes told Penn State News.

What's Sensitivity Got to Do With It?

We know that the more often a person consumes a specific food the more they'll like it. It's an example of a psychological phenomenon known as the mere-exposure effect, which states that people develop a preference for things they're familiar with.

hot sauce bottle with flames

So the more often you add hot sauce to your food, the less sensitive you'll become to the pain, and you'll require higher levels of capsaicin to achieve that original intensity of burn.

However, consuming spicy food isn't just about how desensitized you've become to that burning sensation. In fact, there are specific types of people who are more inclined to consume spicy foods: sensation-seekers.

Hayes and Byrnes found that those who were most inclined to enjoy exploration, adventurous travel and action movies were six times more likely to relish the burn of a meal doused in Sriracha.

When it comes to who enjoys spicy food and way, researchers have also discovered gender differences.

In a recent study, Hayes and Byrnes found that women who eat spicy foods are more drawn to the burning sensation — or "benign masochism," to use the term coined by researcher Paul Rozin — than men.

Men, on the other hand, are more likely to consume spicy food because they wanted to impress onlookers.

A separate study, conducted by the University of Grenoble-Alpes in France, also found a correlation between the levels of testosterone in male participants and the amount of hot sauce they added to mashed potatoes. The ones who drizzled on the most also had tendencies toward risk-taking behaviors and aggression.

But there's more to the enjoyment of spicy food than simply gender, personality or sensitivity to capsaicin. There are cultural factors at work as well.

In the 1970s, Rozin studied the eating habits of Mexican children and determined that the consumption of spicy foods was actually a learned behavior.

"When you have a culture where all the food is spicy, I suspect you probably wash out any relationship between spicy food intake and personality because of learned associations and cultural norms and all those sort of things, but until we actually test that, we won't know," Hayes told The Atlantic.