James Gorman wrote an interesting bit in the New York Times about the peculiar psychology involved with eating hot chili peppers.
Others, notably Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that the beneficial effects are too small to explain the great human love of chili-spiced food. “I don’t think they have anything to do with why people eat and like it,” he said in an interview. Dr. Rozin, who studies other human emotions and likes and dislikes (“I am the father of disgust in psychology,” he says) thinks that we’re in it for the pain. “This is a theory,” he emphasizes. “I don’t know that this is true.”
But he has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”
I have to agree, although by true chili-head standards, I am a wimp. I can tolerate only a moderate degree of pain, perhaps because I came to chilies late in life. My son was quite impressed with an in-law who grew up in Mexico and ate habanero peppers whole, so my wife suggested a father-son gardening project. The first year only one plant survived the woodchucks and deer. But what a plant — it produced a bumper crop of killer orange habaneros. Nothing ate them. In my mind I still see that plant dangling its little orange heat grenades in front of the deer and growling, “Bite me, Bambi.”