A recently released Austrian study has people across the Internet buzzing about a possible link between those who drink black coffee and psychopathy. The Huffington Post announced that “People Who Order Coffee Black Are More Likely To Be Psychopaths,” and joked about how readers should take a second look at everyone in their lives who drinks black coffee.
Other Internet news sites have followed by reporting on this interesting link. But a closer look at the study itself shows that while there may be a tenuous link between black coffee and psychopathy, this does not mean you should start dumping milk and sugar in your coffee if you do not wish to visit a mental asylum.
The Study Is Not Actually About Coffee
The study, published at the University of Innsbruck, does not focus on coffee at all. The focus is on bitter-tasting substances, as the title is “Individual differences in bitter taste preferences are associated with antisocial personality traits.”
This study analyzed whether different tastes could serve as an indicator for antisocial personality traits, and “confirmed the hypothesis that bitter taste preferences are positively associated with malevolent personality traits, with the most robust relation to everyday sadism and psychopathy.”
So, if the study is correct, people who prefer bitter foods in general (as opposed to just black coffee) are the ones who are at greater risk for psychopathy. Some of these other bitter foods as defined by the study are grapefruit juice, tea, and cottage cheese. So coffee drinkers can feel better in that they are not alone in their potential malevolent habits.
There Are Issues With Defining Food by Their Taste Category
But even a link between those who like bitter foods and psychopathy is tenuous. The first problem is defining what foods are bitter.
This study worked by having 953 individuals self-respond to a series of questions, a similar method to the one used in a recent e liquids study. First, the individuals were asked about specific foods which they liked. Then they were asked how much they liked sweet, sour, bitter, and salty foods. Finally, they took a personality test which among other factors looked for Machiavellian or psychopathic answers.
The first problem was that the foods which the Austrian researchers felt to be bitter were not the foods which the respondents thought were bitter. In addition to the foods mentioned above, the researchers defined seven other foods — coffee, rye bread, beer, radishes, tonic water, celery, and ginger ale — as bitter.
But as the study admits, “of the 10 bitter items, only half were perceived as predominantly bitter.” While coffee was one of those five perceived as bitter, the fact that there was such a discrepancy in what constituted a bitter food is a significant weakness in this study. How can you define a link between bitterness and psychopathy if you cannot properly define what bitterness is?
The Study Was Largely Self-Reported
This was perhaps the biggest flaw of this study. As the Washington Post observes, studies which get their subjects through self-reporting are notoriously unreliable. This is especially true for a psychological study, as people are very bad at assessing their own capabilities and personality. Consider how no one thinks of himself as a jerk, regardless of how he might appear to others.
Respondents were also only paid anywhere from 60 cents to a dollar for responding to this survey, and then had to answer a set of over 50 questions. It is perfectly plausible that respondents could have just focused on answering the questions as soon as possible without seriously considering their answers.
While a study like this can reach a conclusion faster than a years or decades-long study analyzing a link between bitter tasting substances and psychopathy, there are too many flaws with how this study was conducted to reach a definitive conclusion with it.
Nothing To Worry About for Moderate Coffee Drinkers
Although a link between black coffee and psychopathy would be interesting, there is just not enough in this study to confidently declare that such a link exists. The study did not focus on black coffee to begin with, there were disagreements for what properly constituted bitter foods, and the survey sample was very unreliable.
So, drinking coffee is not a sign of poor mental health. And while society does worry about a world where we seem to be more and more dependent on caffeine, there are reliable studies which indicate a positive relationship between coffee and cardiovascular health.
While excessive caffeine consumption — as in more than two cups of coffee a day — can pose health problems, this just means that coffee drinkers have to exercise moderation to keep those health benefits.
So brew yourself another cup and drink it. That cup is not a sign that you will find yourself hissing at unsuspecting police officers.
Featured photo credit: Porsche Brosseau via flickr.com