• John Ennis

John Prescott - Go Upstream


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Dr. John Prescott is director of TasteMatters Research & Consulting, and author of Taste Matters: Why We Like The Foods We Do. Since 2014, he has also been a Visiting Professor at the University of Florence, Italy, where he has been an external adviser to, and collaborator on, the multi-centre Italian Taste project. John has a conjoint professorial appointment in the psychology department of the University of Newcastle (Australia).


John has extensive experience teaching full and short courses in sensory/consumer science and in psychology topics related to perception, cognition, and learning.


John has more than 120 scientific publications in areas such as genetic variations in taste perception, cross-cultural chemosensory perceptions and preferences, flavour perception, food preferences, odour learning and memory, and emotions. John is past President and Secretary of the Australasian Association for Chemosensory Science. He is the current editor of Food Quality and Preference, and also serves on the editorial board of Chemosensory Perception.


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Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)


John Ennis: John, we made it through your bio, it's very illustrious. But I'm really glad to have you on the show.


John Prescott: Yeah, it's great to be here. Thanks.


John Ennis: Thank you. So, John, first off, let's just go through, so obviously, you have a very illustrious background and it would be great for everybody in most people I would say either know you but it would be nice to hear your kind of story because like one of the things I love about sensory is the fact that there are so many different paths into the field. I think that diversity is really a strength of sensory, diversity of background experiences and it would be great to hear your story of how you ended up where you are in the field.


John Prescott: Well, I sort of fell into sensory. I was very typical training as an experimental psychologist at university and for my PhD actually worked in an area looking at motor control and also sensory physiology a little bit. So I wasn't at all aware of the whole field of sensory early in my career. And I simply applied for a job at a government research institute, and they were looking for somebody who wanted to work in the area of smell and taste. And it was actually called CSRO. And there were a couple of people there who were working in smell and taste like Graham Bell was one, David Langham as one, mostly working on a sense of smell. And because it was a government institute, it was really focused on helping food producers in particular and export markets. So we had a situation where we were trying to understand food preferences and as I say, particularly for export. So I applied for that job without knowing anything about taste or smell, how it's measured or understood, and simply started from the basic in a very low basic except for the base every experimental psychologist had, which is, good training, experimental design, and an understanding of sensory processes, government processes and so on. And the background has proved to be very useful and as I've got to know the field over the years, you see people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds. A lot of them go through food science, but very many of us have come through the same trap that I have in psychology, because, you know, you learn that's highly relevant in some respects.


John Ennis: When was that? Was that in the 70s, 80s?


John Prescott: I hesitate to answer that. But, yes, it was in the 80s that I actually did my PhD. And so in 1990, I started with CSRO and started working in the field. And I must say, I was very excited to start out with to work in this field. I found it very exciting. First, we working on a large grant, which unfortunately I hadn't had to apply for. So I stepped into the shoes of another scientist, Bob McBride, who was very well-known in the field and unfortunately died a few years ago and made a very significant impact on the field. And so I was very excited because I quickly found out that if you work in taste or smell of food, actually, you can get to know the field pretty well. Get to the field and get to know the people in the field pretty easily through conferences and so on. If you go to a vision, for example, the major vision conference of ten thousand people, biggest conferences on taste and smell and about a thousand maximum. And so, you know, everybody really well. And I found extraordinarily appealing a scientist can.


John Ennis: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I mean, I think the sensory community, first of all, is a very open community and very easy to talk to anybody. I mean, look, I asked you to be on the show and you're very famous in the field, but you agreed and it was very kind of you. So I find in general in my career, it's been rather easy to connect with different leading lights of the field and to learn a lot from people in the field. So I do want to you know, the theme of our show is about technologies and the importance of technology in sensory and consumer science. And I know there are other things you're excited about, but I also know that you have some interesting thoughts on and some thoughts I think will be worth our listeners hearing on some of the limitations of or maybe caveats regarding the, there's an enthusiasm around the use of technology that may not always be warranted, and I think it would be good to hear some of your cautions or some of the things we're talking about before the show we're very interesting to me. So it'd be nice to hear your perspective on when should we be careful not to just embrace new technology for its own sake?


John Prescott: Well, I think I'm as excited as you are about new technologies. I think it's one should always look at potential. And I think the problem has been that you can jump on the bandwagon pretty quickly without really considering the implications of what you are doing. As I was telling, my main issue with technological approaches has been a philosophical problem at all. So an emphasis problem as much as anything else that you know, when you look at some of the practical applications of sensory science and the main practical applications to help people in the industry understand the consumer science. That's the big focus, particularly if your background is in food science. Now, one of the issues always has been that if you ask consumers things that are highly variable, they want one thing one day, another thing the next day, and so on. And, you know, there is a sort of skepticism about asking consumers their opinions, even though it's widely done, because in practice, what you find out is that if consumers said they like something which is great if you're a producer, then, in fact, it's a very, very poor predictor of what they'll buy. What they want to buy if they say they hate something. Now that's led to a sort of a view that somehow the consumer and consumers, in general, are being reliable or unreliable and not deliberately but are unreliable. Somehow that information is flawed and that's emphasized by the fact that it's highly variable. People do change their minds. They change their minds from morning till evening. What food do I like most? For me, it's breakfast time. So I guess I like what I have for breakfast. Ask me, I won't be wanting breakfast cereal. So this form of diet is so many variables that you could look at and of course, consumers have personalities and they have behavioral traits. And that was this and that. And they're highly are variable. Now, coming from psychology, or at least traditional psychology, you see that as a challenge to understand that variability, to understand the factors that influence people's behavior. Now, with the advent of really very interesting technologies, Whiz-Bang Technologies, fMRI, and so on, but this applies across the board to any technology. There's a sense in which when you're dealing with technologies, you're dealing with something which is highly objective. And that's true in the sense machines are objective. But once human headed a truth, essentially what if fMRI machine is then you're actually recording not only the innermost workings of the brain, but you're actually recording all that variability as well. I always say to people who say, well, you know, surely we can just put people in a machine or whatever it is and work out what they really like by getting a signal from their innermost brain. And I would say, well, how do you know that the signal from the innermost brain is telling what they really like? Well, we asked them what they like, you know, which isn't so that's being validated. The objective measure being validated on the subject of that's just a silly way to proceed, in a way. Now, I actually think, you know, even in the last 10-15, 20 years that these technologies have developed very, very well and like any technology, they're only as good as the questions you ask them and of the technology. And so, you know, the questions have been improving and there are people within our field who are using them in an interesting way, but they're seductive. I should feel the psychology has been seduced, what used to be called experimental psychology is now more typical called cognitive neuroscience, yeah, and you often hear people talking about, well, this is what the brain thinks is somehow as an independent entity. You know just sitting you ahead for a ride.


John Ennis: Right.


John Prescott: And so that's the problem, it's the seductive nature. The pretty pictures are actually extraordinarily seductive. Now, I've always said, look, the problem is not that you asking people what they like is flawed. Asking people what they like is an incomplete question. And in fact, you should be asking people what they like in this context and all that context in this time of day. You know, and many people have been doing that to be fair. You know, people like Mussulman has been doing this for years and years and years, that this is how conducting sensory research and I think a lot of people know. I'm not saying that technology won't be useful. You just have to be clear of what sort of information is going to give you. And that's true of any measure. It's nothing to do with the fact that you plug it in is to do any measure. And for example, I think the same question could be asked about the recent enthusiasm for measuring emotions. And let's be clear where that came from. And that is that the recognition finally that asking people about liking was pretty useless as a predictor of food choice. Let people think about emotions. Now, that's a terrific thing to do to ask them but we still have the same sort of problems. We don't know what emotions are. We don't know how many there are and so on and so on. And so technology, it's no different from that, it seems to me, is that you need to be cautious about what technology can tell you. And that's been my sort of guiding view about this.


John Ennis: That's fascinating. Yeah, I can definitely hear the experimental psychologist in you. And my wife is a psychology professor and actually, I did my postdoc in cognitive neuroscience. I mean, measurement by itself is a fascinating topic. Right? The idea that you have numbers and they may or and of course, is a hot topic right now because there's a lot of numbers around the pandemic where what are the numbers really mean? How do you interpret the numbers? I mean, you've got the thing you're trying to measure some abstract or some latent variable that there's something we care about. Right? And our case, usually what we're trying to do, we're trying to find something that's predictive of purchase behavior typically or maybe satisfaction, but for us, there's some latent thing we're trying to measure that we care about that hopefully will predict purchase behavior. And then we have actual things we can measure. We have numbers like manifest variables, I suppose, things that are measurable. And there may or may not be a relationship between the numbers that we're getting, however, we're getting them and the things that we actually care about. I think that's a big problem. So what are some of the tools you think are the kind of, I mean I really like what you said about asking good questions. When you look at the really skilled experimental psychologists, they're the ones that ask the best questions. They design experiments that are able to really get to the heart of whatever it is they're investigating. So what are some of the tools or techniques that you think hold the most promise for helping the field to move forward in terms of us accomplishing our goals, making products that actually delight people or that will be, you know, that will lead to repeat purchase behavior. What do you see as the kind of most promising avenues of research right now?


John Prescott: Well, that's a difficult question to answer, I think. But I do support the approach of many researchers now looking at emotions. I think that's right. But the problem there is that, you know, very, very few people in this field have any background in the topic. Even psychologists have a very little background on the topic. You know, it's almost the foundation document of one psychologist, William James, a psychology professional, and he asked fundamental questions about the relationship between feelings and the emotion somehow feel inside the physiological aspects of it and things like facial expression. And he didn't have an answer as to well, he had an opinion, but he didn't have an answer as to which comes first, which precedes what and how they are related. And frankly, I don't think we already have any advance on William James even today. We don't really understand particularly well. So what I'm saying is here is that we need to understand the basics a little bit more. Now, and this is not a fault of the practitioners in sensory science, but it is simply a statement of fact is that many people come with an implied orientation to the field and they want to use the tools that exist and apply those tools to problems that the industry has them. And that laudable. But I think in looking at some of these things that we're doing, we needed to take a step back and look at the underlying theoretical aspects of the field. What is need to be asking, that sort of question rather than simply applying list of emotions. Now, in your field, in a field you've been working, it's the same thing in terms of measurement. You know, sensory science has traditionally have, you know, phrased the sensory toolbox. It's a terrible phrase and in the sense that it does imply that there's something useful to be taken out of the toolboxes. And I'm not going to suggest that these things haven't been useful triangle tests and things like that. You know, if you were starting again, you wouldn't be using those items in the central toolbox. You'd be going back to textural theory and understanding the nature of human perception and human biases and so on. So I think, you know, I'd hope that we'd get in the future a bit more of that input into sensory courses. The other thing I think, which is going to be hopefully very important is understanding cognitive processes. I'm reading a book by Richard Thaler is a behavioral economist. The relevance of this is he's talking about his career and talking about how the economists were very conservative and didn't want to accept the behavior of people was relevant to economics if you can believe that. And they still are skeptical. And so he's you know, he's been one of the main protagonists pushing this idea that actually people do act in ways which an economist would consider irrational. They acted in particular ways under particular cognitive constraints at a particular time. And that's an absolute certainty to be crucial in our field as well. You want to know what consumers do, how they behave, how they see things, then you've got to think about the cognitive biases that people have. We called them biases, but they're actually influences, normal influences on the way we think. We have to understand those. I'm hoping we will feel increasingly embraces that approach as well.


John Ennis: Now, that is fascinating. I never thought about that. There is this kind of rationality, what is it, the home of economists, or what is it? The fictional person who makes rational decisions?


John Prescott: Economist. Yeah.


John Ennis: Yeah. Doesn't actually exist. I guess there's things like the ultimatum game that show that people don't make rationals.


John Prescott: Exactly. And the idea that a market is always right. Well, except where it is.


John Ennis: Right. Yeah. I mean you get these psychological, I mean, didn't make sense to buy GameStop stock after a while, but people were buying it, you know, tool mania, whatever else it might be.


John Prescott: Well, exactly. But I think, you know, there the emphasis I think that we ought to look at now. The extent to technology assister, I think is fantastic. Let me give you one example of technology I think could be improved upon or at least applied in a more insightful manner. I talked about emotions, measurement of emotions. And again, you have the same problem that people are a little bit unhappy about asking people, you know, here, I give you this food, what do you feel? Well, I feel happy, or I feel sad, or I feel glad or a million different words, mostly meaning the same things. So people understandably were sure about what those words might mean. So there's a long history of this recording, facial muscle activity, recording movements, recording constriction of people, things like these, but lots of different physiological measures. Hot, sweat, and activity, and of course, all these measures have a long history of being applied. Now, I would say at the moment we don't have any clue about emotions for using those measures. But I think we could if we combine different measures, physiological measures, and verbal reports of emotions. Now, what this is going to take, unfortunately, is a lot of preliminary work. And as I said, when a lot of practitioners are actually having a very strong applied orientation, particularly those in the industry, don't have time to do that sort of work.


John Ennis: Right.


John Prescott: And so they want to apply a technique now that's going to give them the answer now and you know because it's associated with the product launches or other activities of the company. But, you know, these techniques, and I can include the ones we've already talked about, fMRI, which will be very, very promising. So keep them in their boxes and let them run wild and cautious about how you interpret. But again, it's a background activity that needs to be then fed into when it becomes useful to the practitioners. I don't think there are enough of us, frankly, in the background world that says that's a real problem. And as we talked about earlier, there is not that many people in this community who are doing basic research.


John Ennis: Right.


John Prescott: And the ones that are working on their own topics, all of them very interesting, but, you know, there is just so many topics. We've chosen a very complex, broad field to work and we are going to take a long time to come up with measures that are going to be able to be applied in the short term.


John Ennis: Yeah, that's fascinating. I am optimistic that as all of the augmented reality technologies become more commonplace, that the tech companies will take a bigger I mean, obviously, you know, in the tech world, the analogous area to consumer science is called UX or user experience. And most large tech companies have a UX group, but they're usually focused on things like app design, website layout, this kind of thing, right? A very small piece of what we would consider to be the sensory experiment. But I think that there's going to be more and more merger of the virtual and physical worlds and there will, I think, become increasing resources available to investigate some of these questions.


John Prescott: Will you hope so? I think you're absolutely right. That seems to me to be the way that those sorts of fields are developing. They're going to be coming up with very, very interesting. And they often have the resources. That's the other thing to put into it. That will be very interesting. I mean, I should say, without insulting our statistically minded colleagues, that one of just happened in sensory and consumer science over the last few decades has been an emphasis on statistical analysis and graphical presentation. And I think really been a little bit overcompensation for our lack of a reliable measures, which is or if you think about it, you know that if we have a basic set of measures that are quite fundamental, quite uncomplicated and how do we advance our field? How do we make it more sophisticated? Well, I think, I push not the only push I pushed into just be very, very clever with statistical and graphical technique. As I said, with all due respect to our statistical culture.


John Ennis: Right. I know it's very interesting, though, because you give me about kind of going upstream to the measurement and thinking, and I say a big idea I've gotten from you on this call is the idea that even if you knew exactly what delights people, that may not be sufficient to tell you how to get them to buy something, right? That people out could be I mean, irrational behavior. You know, it's not the whole story, even if someone is absolutely delighted by something that may be more complicated. So that's interesting. But this idea of asking better questions, getting better measures, you know, moving upstream as opposed to taking this kind of impoverished measures and doing fancier and fancier things.


John Prescott: Yeah, I mean, you say the word delight and it's a very common term. I wonder to extend, it sounds extraordinarily logical. If I'm delighted by something there, I buy it. Now, I delighted by 1950s Italian sports cars, but I'm not going to buy one. For two reasons, one is the money, the other one is my wife. Says I can buy an Italian sports car if I buy Guido the mechanic to come with it. But the point is that there are many reasons why you can be delighted by something to not buy, and this is why you can be totally undelighted and buy something and buy it. I can be delighted by delicious chocolate, for example. Now, I'm not going to buy all that often because if I do, my pathetic attempts at losing weight will go down the drain. And so there are all sorts of reasons, behavioral reasons, motivation reasons that delight, it's great and it may work in some cases, but the actual reasons are given to something is something else I'm looking to and I'm using a MacBook computer. Now, I don't know whether Macs delight me or not. I don't really know anymore because I've used it for such a long time. I wouldn't buy anything else. No, I don't buy a new one with a sense of delight, I buy a new one because the old one broke and I never think about it in terms of the happiness that it will bring me.


John Ennis: Right.


John Prescott: So, you know, there's a whole feel of motivation, which is actually also we have to dig into. It's very complex.


John Ennis: Yes, now that's very interesting. I'm actually quite interested in behavioral economics myself. And that's, yeah, something that I totally agree. They're going upstream further and motivation and try to get more reliable measures. I mean it's interesting because maybe you could think you said liking might be a reliable measure, but is it really measuring the right thing?


John Prescott: Yeah, exactly. And what traditionally psychologists and behavioral economists are doing, you know what we as psychologists have done is to try and answer a complicated question. You set up complex experiments where you manipulate different sorts of conditions that are likely to influence decision-making or preferences or whatever you called it. That to me, is still highly relevant way of proceeding. But we need to have the personnel who are working in the field to be asking those sorts of questions.


John Ennis: Fascinating. Right, John, I feel like we're just getting started and I would love to keep talking to you, but we're actually at times now, so I'd like to get your advice, advice for a young sensory scientist. That's always something we like to wrap up. I mean, we've talked about it going upstream and trying to figure out the right things to measure anything. Any other advice that you'd like to give to our listener?


John Prescott: Well, here's two things. One, I've already talked about, that if you've got a set of tools and let's say you come into the usual route through sensory science, through typically food science. You're giving a set of tools, fantastically great, by all means, use them. But what you typically don't get is the theoretical background. And I think you need that sometime relatively early in your career. You need to get the theoretical background of those things. Now, what's relevant psychophysics, psychological measurement, all that sort of thing is highly relevant. I've got to say, psychology departments now, you don't get much of that either, but it's particularly relevant for food scientists to understand where the measures they're using have come from. It's absolutely crucial. Secondly, I would say that this is a very important thing that people ought to do. And this applies to anybody entering the field, is you've got to interact with your colleagues on a regular basis. And I always say to people, no matter what their field is, find out what to you the most interesting and high profile conferences in your area and go to it every time as possible as you can so that you get to know your peers and your potential mentors in the field personally. And there is nothing that beats that as important into your career.


John Ennis: Right.


John Prescott: On the one hand, people will give you a helping hand, because as you point out earlier, it's a very generous field. People are very generous in this field. But secondly, you never know what sorts of information that will send you down an interesting path that you can get an account. You've been in the field for a while, advice and just companionship. In some stage, you will want to know how to interact with people in your field in a more formal way that is collaborating on a project or, you know, basic research and applied research or just collaborating on a workshop or something like that and knowing those people is crucial to facilitate that. One caution though, you will be at the conference, it will be midnight in the bar. You'll have had a couple of drinks, so will everybody else. And somebody who really will come up to you and ask you, would you mind contributing a chapter to a book I'm doing? It's not you for 12 months. And you say, okay, fine. Then 11 and a half months later when you've forgotten about it. And that's one of the traps you fall into it as a young sensory.


John Ennis: That's funny. That's an excellent way to wrap things up. That was good advice, John. So someone has to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to connect with you?


John Prescott: Well, they can connect through my email prescott@taste-matters.org or they can email me through Food Quality and Preference website. Contact me if people have some interesting data that they think might be good papers, we'd love to hear about it. And I can tell you that they're suitable. I've been writing enough for a particular journal. Through my website, www. tastematters.org.


John Ennis: What about LinkedIn? Are you on LinkedIn?


John Prescott: I'm on LinkedIn. Anybody else contact me through LinkedIn, I'll be happy to hear from you.


John Ennis: Okay, wonderful. Alright, John, thank you so much. It's been really very enlightening.


John Prescott: It's a pleasure, John.


John Ennis: Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.




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