Coffee Culture Among Colleagues

MICHAEL LEAHY / AGGIE

UC Davis researchers find that coffee aids group discussion

From its origins in Ethiopia to its becoming an integral part of North American culture, coffee has been consumed since at least the 15th century. According to associate professor David Kyle of the Department of Sociology, coffee consumption being accompanied by the advent of specialized coffee salons, coffee shops and break rooms has made “coffee culture” more about the social interaction and less about the drink. UC Davis researchers decided to look more into the effects of coffee during social interactions by studying the effects of coffee on individuals’ performance in a group setting.

For centuries, coffee rituals were as much about the gathering of friends and not just the drink,” Kyle said. “For example, soon after arrival in London in the 1600s, there were already 2,000 coffee shops in 1700. They were known as penny universities because for a penny a cup you could engage people from all walks of life in sustained discussion about any topic. I’m happy to see that UC Davis researchers are turning to the social dimensions of coffee consumption and culture.”

Two separate experiments were conducted to observe the effects of caffeine on group discussions, studying both the quality of discourse itself and how participants felt about themselves and each other after the discussion.

“Undergraduate students who were moderate coffee drinkers were brought to a laboratory in small groups and given a group task among many other tasks,” said Vasu Unnava, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Graduate School of Management and author of the study. “In the first study, the target group consumed coffee while the control group did not consume coffee. In the second study, the target group consumed regular caffeinated coffee while the control group consumed decaffeinated coffee.”

In both studies, the researchers found that the group that ingested caffeine enjoyed their tasks more. The participants that ingested caffeine also found others in the group to be more receptive to their ideas. In the second study, researchers found that the caffeinated group was more focused on the task at hand. The results of the study show that a moderate amount of caffeine positively affects participation in a group discussion and makes participants feel better about themselves and their peers.

These results are preliminary and more research needs to be done, specifically addressing two gaps in the study. The participants in the study were coffee drinkers and participated in the study after avoiding coffee for a few hours. This makes it hard to tell if the coffee consumed in the study increased the alertness of the caffeinated participants or if the control group merely had decreased alertness. Another issue is that all of the group members had similar opinions about the topic of discussion, which was the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“One [way to resolve the gaps] is to give everyone a cup of regular coffee so there is no withdrawal effect,” said H. Rao Unnava, a professor at the Graduate School of Management and co-author of the study. “Following that, in a couple of hours, we can give one group caffeinated coffee and another group decaffeinated coffee and see if our results replicate […] It would be useful to see what happens when a topic is chosen that people disagree about. Would caffeine make people more agreeable?”

The current results can be applied to numerous other studies.

There are many possible extensions of this research,” said Vasu Unnava. “We can look into group tasks that are harder to see if the effects replicate. We can look into group tasks where there will be significant disagreement and see if coffee helps. We can look into other ways of increasing alertness in people and see if our results are reproduced.”

 

 

Written by: Kriti Varghese — science@theaggie.org