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Is Starbucks Coffee Addictive?

Written by Phil

A coffee enthusiast and traveler, Phil primarily spends his days thinking and writing about coffee. He also writes for HittingEject.com where he explores ideas of culture, psychology, and travel, and occasionally dabbles in horror.

Today we dive into the world of conspiracy, chemical romances, and subtle psychology. I have mentioned Starbucks here and there, but it would seem that people believe many outlandish things about the corporation. It’s funny how a mistake or oversight at such a large scale can spawn entire communities of conspiracies.

But what’s more tempting than a tasty secret about an entity so large and powerful that its 2019 revenue was greater than the GDP of the lowest ranking 85 countries? Some even believe they add illegal things to their coffee to make it more addictive. So, is Starbucks’ coffee addictive?

Yes – Starbucks is addictive and dependence-forming, like all coffee. Caffeine is a stimulant that can be used to cope with fatigue or contribute to work addiction, often to escape the pain of feeling one is not enough.

Addiction Vs Dependence

First, we need to set the difference between addiction and dependence.

The simplest difference is for something like exercise: You can be addicted to exercise, but not chemically dependent on it. There are no withdrawals.

The way ordinary people speak about addiction is actually inaccurate – addiction does not need to be chemically dependent on it. Addiction is generally a behaviour that is used to cope with difficulties or escape from something, often pain of some sort, typically psychological. 

According to this site, addiction can be characterized by the 4 C’s:

  1. Compulsion – An absolute, overpowering urge to fuel their addiction. It may start impulsively but eventually becomes a strong urge. Not partaking can negatively affect all other areas of life. Many people feel they cannot function without caffeine, and this goes beyond merely feeling tired. “Agonizing anxiety occurs”, as the above source put it.
  2. Craving – The urge to fuel the addiction can become as urgent as hunger pains and can mimic a physical need in this way. The urges often present as “restlessness, insomnia, and lack of appetite.” Personally, I don’t find this to be the case, but I do know people where this fits.
  3. Consequences – Even when negative consequences occur, the behaviour continues. This case could most concisely be made by considering the existence of decaf.
  4. Control – This is the lack thereof. The addict begins to lose control of how and when it is used. Many people require coffee in their morning coffee to function, and some need a second or third to make it through the workday. This then disrupts their sleep, including its quality, and the cycle continues.

Note that it does not require dependence on the substance, nor withdrawals. This is why you can be addicted, in the clinical sense, to things that common use of the word addiction doesn’t fit with – things like sex, exercise, fasting, video games, etc. Coffee does conform to all four of these, but clearly not in everyone. For further reading, check out this site.

Dependence

Coffee does create a physical dependence based on its withdrawal effects. Those who are chemically dependent on it will feel things like:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (shocking)
  • Anxiety (See “compulsion” above)
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Depressed Mood
  • Irritability
  • Tremors
  • Low Energy

I could stop here and conclude the article with a resounding yes, but there’s a lot more to be said about Starbucks in particular. They are clever, and I’d like to point out how it’s potentially nefarious, yet could just be good business.

Sugary Caffeine Delivery Service

Let’s consider the main reason why Starbucks became a runaway success: they were the forerunners of the 2nd wave of coffee, which was to make coffee palatable through additives. 

Caffeine itself is already demonstrably addictive, but then when you start pouring loads of fat (cream) and sugar (including syrups), you make it that much more addictive. As this paper on sugar states:

The reviewed evidence supports the theory that, in some circumstances, intermittent access to sugar can lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse. According to the evidence in rats, intermittent access to sugar and chow is capable of producing a “dependency”. […] What this review demonstrates is that rats with intermittent access to food and a sugar solution can show both a constellation of behaviors and parallel brain changes that are characteristic of rats that voluntarily self-administer addictive drugs. In the aggregate, this is evidence that sugar can be addictive.

Mounting evidence is coming out that shows sugar is addictive; some studies show that it’s as addictive as cocaine. It seems to also increase your desire for it the more you consume (source):

Finally, there is strong evidence of the existence of sugar addiction, both at preclinical and clinical level. Our model has demonstrated that five out of eleven criteria for SUD are met, specifically: use of larger amounts and for longer than intended, craving, hazardous use, tolerance, and withdrawal.

This is different from salt, for example, which has a natural turn-off valve. Ever notice how salty foods are sometimes very appealing, but lose their appeal after you’ve had a bit? Sugar works differently and is likely the true culprit for things we formerly leveled at salt.

There were rumblings of experts warning about combining caffeine and alcohol together because it could increase the rate of addiction, though in this case, we’re just pairing it with sugar instead.

Though refined sugar is an addictive substance akin to a drug (if it isn’t straight-up classified as one), some people will get angry about such distinctions, possibly as some sort of PC movement or what have you. To them, I say this

You can have coca tea and get a mild buzz. You can eat a coffee bean and feel energized. Both of these substances are relatively harmless in their natural form, but refinement down to a powder, like sugar or the coca leaf, is what makes the difference. Imagine how you’d respond to someone putting caffeine powder up their nose.

There are degrees of concentration, and highly concentrated sugar, which is nearly inescapable today, has many of the same effects as long-term alcohol use. (Why do you think it’s no longer called “adult-onset diabetes” and why fatty liver disease is being discovered in children?)

Starbucks, and other chains, love to pump sugar into everything for a reason. It’s a great way to make more money by having people come back for that oh-so-tasty fix. Instead, it’s now a double-whammy.

Conspiracy Theories

Adding Adulterations to Increase Dependence

Far as I could tell, this seems to be complete hogwash. It reminds me of the anti-vaxxers of recent years, believing that a microchip will be injected into you. The questions behind these notions are entertainingly ridiculous: do we really have the technology or the need to do that? 

In the case of tracking chips, we have passports and cell phones that already do that. In the case of adding nicotine to the brew (a Tim Hortons myth) is redundant. Why would you increase your costs and risk your reputation to make an already-addictive substance more addictive? It’s just bad business. 

Pre-emptive defense: If you’re going to call me out for my stance on sugar, it is considered harmless by most people, it’s in fruit, and people wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at it. Just consider how you’d feel knowing nicotine was added, or “just” sugar. Clearly, there’s a reputational difference.

Starbucks Adds More Caffeine

This one has some credibility to it; they use a higher ratio of beans to make their coffee stronger, so it would have more caffeine on average. That being said, I’m going to use this study again to show how their caffeine content is not consistent. 

This could have its own benefit, which I will address in the “Subtle Psychology” section. Given that it costs more money for them to brew the same amount, it must be worth their while to do so.

I can imagine this was done with forethought.

Starbucks Misspells Names on Purpose

This could be purposeful, but it’s more likely due to human error

You may wonder, why would Starbucks ever misspell people’s names on purpose

Speculators believe they do this so that they can get free advertisement when people post on social media about the mistake. This isn’t directly related to addiction, but if you’re addicted to a substance, and something reminds you of it, you may just reach for another cup.

Subtle Psychology

Since I’m making the case against Starbucks, specifically, it is also relevant to rope in the extra tricks that they employ to keep us coming back. 

The question is whether Starbucks’ coffee is more addictive. So, here are a series of things I’ve thought about or come across that increase Starbucks’ share of our minds.

Coping

This is more for caffeine in general, but both Michael Pollan (great food writer) and Matthew Walker PhD (Author of Why We Sleep) have written about the effects of caffeine and how they are often negative. 

We need to get through the day, but we’re tired. Coffee! But then it takes too long to get out of your system – roughly 6 hours for its halflife – meaning that it could stay in your system indefinitely with enough daily beverages. 

This, in turn, negatively affects sleep quality and reinforces the cycle even further. Fun!

Tangent: I remember reading about a historical kingdom that banned tobacco use – punishable by death. Yet people still continued to use it, amazingly. My current thought experiment is how society would react if we were to impose similar punishments on caffeinated products.

The IKEA Effect

Many psychological effects are subtle. Ever since learning about the IKEA effect – believing something is higher quality because you helped assemble it – I began wondering if that was why some coffee shops had customers add their own cream and sugar

Not only does it save on employee time, but it could actually improve customers’ perceptions. (If you liked this one, a semi-related one is the endowment effect; people are more likely to keep something they already own than to get that same object when they don’t).

Round Tables

Apparently, there’s a belief that round tables make you feel less lonely. I haven’t seen any research on it, but apparently, it’s from the book “Grande Expectations” by Karen Blumenthal. I have not read it.

This article provides further examples, but the reasoning is that square tables make you subconsciously aware of the lack of other people because each side would get at least one. With a circle, this isn’t the case. 

Sure, why not.

Red Cups

This one would be similar to the misspelled names idea: Since some Christians perceive it as an attack on their religion. Speculators think the controversy makes you think about Starbucks, thus triggering a craving for coffee… assuming you aren’t the minority who is offended. 

Controversy courts attention, I suppose. To me, it seems like they’re in a catch-22. Court the Christians and seem super biased, potentially offending non-Christians, or stay neutral and have some Christians mad.

Green Straws

I can’t find a credible source for it, but it’s rumored that the straws’ green color was chosen because it would make people believe it is more environmentally friendly, so they say. 

Though Starbucks is moving to replace their plastic straws with other materials, they will remain green.

Secret Menu

While this isn’t particularly special to Starbucks, they do have an expansive menu, much of which is not on their boards. 

Who doesn’t like to be an insider to a secret club? If you want to pique people’s interest, just slap “secret” onto it. Or other marketing words, such as rampage, outrage, freak out, take down, trick, etc.

Friendly Staff & Homey Interior

While this may seem obvious, the interior decor and friendly staff are a particular facet of Starbucks’ brand.

I remember reading about how they provide great packages for their employees to ensure that they stick around and provide better service. The employees are expected to make banter, joke, and otherwise welcome customers, especially regulars. 

They spend over 300 million on healthcare for employees, which is more than they spend on coffee beans. As well, they don’t allow cologne or perfume to avoid bothering “scentsitive” customers and baristas alike. As well, they have been smoke-free since the 80s – well before legally mandated. Apparently, coffee beans absorb smells.

If you haven’t noticed, many chains do not do this, for however obvious it should be. Treat your employees well, and they’ll be kind to customers; customers will want to return. Yet, the difference between chains is often stark. 

As for the interior design, the strategy is to make it welcoming and comfortable. Starbucks aims to capitalize on people who want to sit and stay, as well as people who are on the way out. Dunkin’ Donuts, on the other hand, is designed to keep customers flowing. 

While Dunkin’s choice makes sense because you’d think more customers coming and going means more money – Starbucks’ choice makes its own sense. 

Where would you rather go: somewhere that clearly wants to give you what you want and quickly get rid of you, or somewhere that gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling and invites you to stay, even if you can’t? 

The answer is obvious, so perhaps Starbucks’ sirens you to their clutches.

The Mascot

Speaking of sirens, some people believe that they chose the mermaid because, in myth, they sometimes are represented as sirens, beckoning sailors to their deaths on the rocks. This is clearly not a huge effect, but some people believe ideas and their associations have major impacts. You decide.

Expensive and Well-Marketed

As I’ve said before, for things like coffee, “cheap = bad; expensive ≠ good”. Yet, many people seem to assume that Starbucks is the best coffee merely because it’s expensive and ubiquitous.

Starbucks has become something of a status symbol since it is among the most expensive coffee places around. The cup is super recognizable, and people from the 2nd-wave mentality may use their particular order as an identity claim, even.

Random Reinforcement

The most powerful form of reinforcement known to psychology, they wield it well. If you’re in the store, they randomly give out samples of drinks or pastries, further making it a rewarding place to be. 

In the past, they even gave out free music downloads, which may or may not be in stock when you roll up (Fun fact: they own “Hear Music”, a music label that has Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchel, and Elvis Costello). 

On top of that, the caffeine content of their beverages ranges wildly, up to 200%! Overall, it may be random, or it may be planned, but it likely has an effect.

Discounts

It may not be big, but they offer a discount for people bringing travel mugs (10¢!). This will probably pull in some deal hunters, though I can’t see it making a huge difference, given Starbucks’ prices.

Rewards programs 

While some coffee chains do literal addiction-encouraging behavior (I’m looking at you, Tim Hortons’ roll up the rim; each coffee cup can be rolled up and you may win a range of prize), Starbucks has their membership tiers that can act similarly:

  • Green: 2 stars per $1 spent, a birthday reward, can pay through the Starbucks app.
  • Gold: Monthly double-star days; rewards for every 125 stars; personalized gold membership card.
  • Hammered Gold: first awarded to 14 winners when launched; reportedly gives free Starbucks for life.

The stars are nice, but the Gold membership has the most addictive potential: you don’t know when the double days are; you have to sign up for their email list, then they’ll “summon” you with their double-star days.

Be First or Be the Best

This is a general business philosophy because the first name on the scene sets the pace and gathers the most attention, and that lead can be easier to maintain if you’re first. But if you aren’t first, you’ve gotta be the best.

Starbucks was the first to make it so crazy popular for all the reasons listed above, and they have maintained a reputation of being “good” among 2nd-wave audiences. Admittedly, their strategy is working. Like it or not, they are nothing if not popular.

Side note: Apparently, Starbucks has pseudo-independent cafes that are actually owned by them. They are said to have “Inspired by Starbucks” in the windows and still accept Starbucks gift cards. The most famous locations are “15th avenue coffee & tea” and “Roy Street Coffee & Tea”, both in Seattle, WA.

Customer Retention

With Starbucks’ average customer return rates being what they are, it’s clear that they’re doing something right. Check out these figures:

  • The average customer visits 6x/month.
  • 20% return 16x/month.
  • The top 5% return 25x/month (this last group is called frappuccino files, meet once a month in Glendale, California).

There are likely some underlying addictions tied into those upper-tier customers, but feel free to disagree.

Side Note

I found this in my search and don’t intend to write about Starbucks again for a while. 

Starbucks Medium Roast came last 3 out of 8 times for coffee taste testers, with pre-ground Folgers only ranking last 4 of the 8 times. That’s close enough that it doesn’t say anything good about Starbucks. And that was a medium roast – not their usual burnt, Charbucks fare.

Conclusion / TL;DR

Starbucks employs many tactics to keep us coming back, and it’s clearly working for them.

Their coffee is a little stronger, caffeine-wise, than most coffee shops because they use more per liter. This increased caffeine, the caffeine variance, and all the sugar additives could help to make it that much more addictive.

To answer the question: Is Starbucks Coffee Addictive?

Coffee is addictive, and Starbucks is no exception. But they also maximize this edge as much as possible by using clever psychology, branding, marketing, and topping it all off with loads of sugar.

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3 Comments

  1. Craig Michael Vandertie

    If anything Starbucks coffee seems watered down, is way too high priced and the investors making a sinful profit.

    Reply
    • Phil

      It is priced quite highly, but that seems to help them more than hurt them, no? It seems to mislead people into thinking their product is superior. Though, it’s nice to know that they spend more on employee healthcare than on coffee beans. Crazy!

      Reply
  2. Nikki

    I’m so NOT a *Starbucks* fan…went there once&paid an exorbitant amount for coffee&it made me sick to my stomach literally&I am a coffee lover(or I. Was then) My husband however is thoroughly addicted to their canned coffee drinks! Which is a constant fight due to the financial BS side of it mostly&the un-unhealthy side as well. He’s a hard head…imagine that!4-6+ DAILY drinks ranging from $2.30-$3.79 a pop usually equally an entire bi-weekly paycheck for him&if given a chance most of my ebt=RIDICULOUS! NOT A FAN HERE💯

    Reply

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