Sunday, May 12, 2019

Did Nicolas Guéguen Really Replicate the Cinnabon Effect?

Some years ago I blogged about a couple of scent-related field studies conducted by French academic researcher Nicolas Guéguen. In 2009, I wrote about a paper of his I had just come across, published in Psychological Reports back in 2001. In “Effect of a perfume on prosocial behavior of pedestrians,” Guéguen found that people were more helpful to a young woman who “accidently” dropped an item when she was wearing perfume, compared to when she was not wearing scent. I thought the paper was worth mentioning because it described a theory-free, empirical approach that could shed light on the natural history of perfume use.

Three years later, in a post called “The Cinnabon Effect Confirmed,” I wrote about another of Guéguen’s studies. This one, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, was titled “The sweet smell of . . . implicit helping: effects of pleasant ambient fragrance on spontaneous help in shopping malls.” The original Cinnabon Effect study was discovered in 1997 by social psychologist Robert Baron who found that shoppers in a mall were more helpful to a stranger when approached next to a pleasant-smelling retail shop (e.g., Cinnabon) rather than an unscented one (e.g., Banana Republic). In his new paper, Guéguen found similar results in a French mall, and extended the paradigm to include male as well as female “strangers.” I wrote approvingly that “Guéguen has confirmed the Cinnabon Effect and extended it to spontaneous acts of kindness.”

I recently became aware that Guéguen’s “sweet smell of” study has been the object of some impressive data sleuthing by Nicholas Brown and James Heathers. A new post on the excellent Retraction Watch website updates the story. In a nutshell, the pair claims that a bunch of papers by Guéguen don’t pass the smell test. The reasons for their skepticism are procedural and statistical. Guéguen is a prolific author yet one with no collaborators, and he may, according to Brown and Heathers, have skirted ethical requirements. Disturbingly, statistical patterns in his underlying data seem consistently fishy. The original B&H posts can be found here and here.

It’s important to note that Brown and Heathers do not claim outright that Guéguen’s studies are fraudulent.
We have not made, and do not make, any specific allegations of fraud, nor are any implied. The initial document that we released is entitled “A commentary on some articles by Dr. Nicolas Guéguen” and details a long series of inconsistencies in research methods, procedures, and data. The words “fraud” and “misconduct” do not appear in this document, nor in any of our communications with the people who helped with the investigation. We restrict ourselves to pointing out that results are “implausible” (p. 2) or that scenarios are “unlikely [to] be enacted practice” (p. 31).
You can download their detailed fifty-two page critique here and judge it for yourself. If you’re less hardcore, this Ars Technica piece covers the story nicely.

I think the points raised by Brown and Heathers are compelling and cast serious doubt on some, if not all, of Guéguen’s work. Accordingly, I’m putting a metaphorical asterisk on the two studies I cited, and flagging this action on my previous blog posts. Data integrity and transparency are core to the scientific endeavor, and when serious doubts are raised they need to be acknowledged.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

FN Review of The Coffee Visionary: The Life & Legacy of Alfred Peet

On my desk as I write this is a mug of Peet’s Costa Rican coffee, ground in my kitchen, brewed strong, and drunk black. The beans arrive via UPS within days of roasting. Peet’s has been my house coffee since I was a Cal Berkeley undergrad. I remember seeing Alfred Peet wearing his shop coat behind the counter at the original store on Vine and Walnut. So, in the interests of full disclosure: yes, I’m a proud Peetnik. Peetniks are all about the coffee: the beans, the roast, the brewing. Like Alfred Peet himself, they disdain what they regard as the coffee-flavored milk drinks served by Starbucks.

Despite my lifelong commitment to the brand, it turns out there was a lot I didn’t know about Alfred Peet. That’s been remedied by Jasper Houtman’s excellent new biography, which covers Peet’s personal life as well as the history of the company. Houtman bases his account on published and unpublished interviews with Peet, as well as first-hand interviews with many people who knew the man personally.

Born in Holland in 1920, Peet was raised by a stiff, demanding father with whom he never established a warm relationship. Years later, when he traveled and lived around the world, he wrote only to his mother, never to his father. This alienation wasn’t entirely his father’s fault. Young Alfred was a rebellious child: he didn’t do well at school because he felt pressured to perform, and he chafed at the tight confines of bourgeois Dutch culture.

Peet’s father and various in-laws were in the coffee business in Holland. Alfred had a natural flair for tasting coffee and tea, but rather than join his father’s company, he left Holland as soon as he could. After WWII went to London to work in tea for the Lipton company. Soon he left for the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), and after that for New Zealand. Seeking a still bigger horizon, he came to the United States in 1955, landing in San Francisco. A series of short-term jobs—including door-to-door salesman—followed, which the shy Peet found excruciating. But he was determined to make his way.

At the time, most coffee came pre-ground in cans from the grocery store. But having discovered the Italian espresso culture of North Beach, Peet realized there was an opportunity in America for better coffee. He was determined to make it happen. Unlike the Bay Area innovators of recent years, Peet was no young upstart. He didn’t open his first store until 1966, when he was forty-six years old. His timing and choice of location couldn’t have been better: the store on the corner of Vine and Walnut became a founding feature of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. The area’s reputation was cemented when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse around the block in 1971.

From the beginning, Peet’s mission was to teach people about coffee. In doing so he didn’t pull any punches. He railed against customers who brewed his coffee in percolators. He fired employees who didn’t follow his strict procedures. And yet he freely shared his knowledge with people who wanted to learn about coffee. He trained many coffee roasters who went on to build their own businesses (such as Starbucks). Despite his Dutch directness—which Americans often read as rudeness—and his inflexibility about the correct ways to do coffee, many of those he trained came to fondly regard him as a mentor.

Like most entrepreneurs, Peet assumed total control of all details of the operation. Part of this was intellectual—the man was a perfectionist who insisted on doing it the best way, or not at all. Another part of it was characterological: scattered throughout Houtman’s book are examples of obsessive-compulsive behavior, as well as a compromised approach to interpersonal relationships. These traits enabled him to create a brand known for its commitment to quality, but also limited its potential to expand. Peet was entirely comfortable with this outcome: he had a small but profitable company that met his personal standards. Later in life, he acknowledged some downsides: he had missed out on some trends and opportunities, and suffered from the stress that went with total control.

Alfred Peet’s emphasis was on practical hands-on training. He felt cupping and roasting can be learned, but not from textbooks. Remarkably, he did not consider coffee to be the ultimate sensory challenge. For him, that was tea.
“In essence, tea is a more interesting product than coffee,” Alfred said. “Tea you can truly compare to wine, there are as many teas as there are wines, with as many different flavors, colors, and bouquets. (. . .) In contrast with tea, coffee is a rather coarse product; the subtle differences that you see in tea, you can’t find in coffee.”
Peet had little use for pompous, wine-like descriptions of coffee. He encouraged people to use simple, even personal terms to describe coffee flavor. His emphasis, especially when teaching someone how to roast beans, was on direct experience, on doing rather than knowing. This could lead to some unusual, almost Zen-like, directives.
How do you determine the moment when you have to take the beans out of the roaster? “The coffee will speak to you and will let you know when she’s ready,” Alfred told his students. For outsiders this sounds mystifying, but those who wanted to learn the profession from him developed an ear for it as well.
Peet didn’t invent a technology. He didn’t build a commercial empire or create a new way of doing business. Instead, he was a sensory entrepreneur: a blender of beans and an evangelist for flavor.

Alfred Peet has become known as the father of the American coffee renaissance. The impact of his life and work are evident wherever one goes. Today, there is quality coffee and espresso in crossroad burgs and small towns throughout the country’s vast interior.

For that, Mr. Peet, we thank you.