Time to Wake Up and See the Coffee

Is drinking that double-double what's perking you up, or are the effects of caffeine actually more psychological than physical?


If you’re looking to cut down your caffeine consumption, you may be in luck. A recent study from the University of Toronto Scarborough has found evidence that just looking at cues that remind you of coffee can lead to your mind becoming more alert and attentive, without ever having to drink a cup of coffee at all.

The study was co-authored by Sam Maglio, an assistant professor of marketing in the Department of Management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and was published in Consciousness and Cognition.

Are the effects of caffeine physical or psychological?

Coffee is the fourth-most consumed beverage in the world, and although many studies have looked into the impacts of coffee on the human body, little is known about its psychological effects. In Western cultures, however, coffee drinkers are routinely associated with heightened states of arousal, where arousal in this sense refers to the brain becoming more alert, awake, and attentive.

But is this heightened state of arousal caused by the caffeine alone, or is some of it due to psychological associations between coffee and alertness?

“We wanted to see if there was an association between coffee and arousal such that if we simply exposed people to coffee-related cues, their physiological arousal would increase,” Maglio expained in a statement.

To determine whether or not this was the case, the authors compared the effects of coffee- and tea-related cues on participants from either Western or Eastern cultures. While both beverages contain caffeine, studies have shown that coffee drinkers are seen as energetic and ambitious in Western cultures, whereas tea drinkers are assumed to be calm and relaxed. The authors therefore expected that while coffee-related triggers might elicit arousal in Western participants, tea-related triggers were unlikely to have the same effect.

To test this hypothesis, the authors had participants read similar articles about either coffee or tea. They then carried out various tests designed to measure both psychological and cognitive effects of arousal, such as measuring participants’ heart rates and assessing participants’ thinking as either concrete (meaning participants focused on discrete details and events in the immediate future) or abstract (meaning that participants focused on broader scopes and longer-term implications). For example, participants might be asked when they would complete a certain activity — such as “going to the dentist” — before and after being exposed to coffee-related triggers.

Just thinking about coffee can increase levels of arousal

The authors found that exposure to coffee-related stimuli, without actual ingestion of any coffee itself, induced both physiological and cognitive changes in participants. They had higher heart rates, perceived times as shorter, and thought in more concrete terms than participants who’d been exposed to tea-related triggers instead.

The authors also found that the effects of coffee-related stimuli on arousal levels were not as prominent in participants from Eastern cultures. The association between coffee and increased states of alertness isn’t as strong in these less coffee-dominated cultures, so the authors weren’t surprised that this was the case.

The study also has interesting implications for consumers. For example, coffee drinkers who want to cut back on consumption while still getting that extra bit of alertness could benefit from simply looking at pictures of coffee on their phones when they wake up in the morning.

Meanwhile, this study may be a sign that it’s time for caffeine addicts to wake up and smell the coffee: the energy boost may be more psychological than you’d think.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.