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Science: Imagine Not Reaching For That Last Cookie

The fleeting thought of a candy bar is often enough to inspire a powerful sweet tooth. But if people go through the motions of devouring an entire candy bar in their mind’s eye—imagining each and every repetitive bite, chew, and swallow—then they would likely consume less of an actual candy bar if they had the chance to eat one, new research suggests.

This kind of decreased response to repetitive stimuli is known as habituation, and Carey Morewedge from Carnegie Mellon University and colleagues used chocolate and cheese to show that imagination is enough to habituate a person to those imagined foods. Their findings appear in the 10 December issue of the journal Science, which is published by AAAS.

The researchers performed a series of experiments in which some participants were asked to imagine themselves eating large amounts of a food, such as chocolate candies or cheese. Others were asked to imagine themselves eating less of that food, more of a different food, or to imagine themselves doing something different altogether. After each participant had visualized the task in their heads, the researchers presented all of them with a bowl filled with candy or cheese, allowing them to eat their fill.

Morewedge and his colleagues observed that participants who had first imagined eating large amounts of candy or cheese actually consumed much less of that food than did the other participants.

“When we measured how much our participants had eaten, we found that only participants who imagined eating more of the food—30 M\&Ms rather than three M\&Ms—subsequently had eaten less from the bowl,” said Morewedge. “If participants had imagined eating a different food or performing a task that did not involve eating the food—like moving it—they didn’t exhibit this reduction in the amount that they ate.”

In light of these findings, the researchers suggest that such repetitive mental imagery of eating a food over and over again has very different effects than picturing a single mental image, which is known to whet one’s appetite.

“Yes, merely thinking of a food, or thinking about cues associated with a food, like how it smells or tastes, does increase our appetite for the food,” said Morewedge. “But if we imagine consuming it and performing the mental imagery that would accompany its actual consumption, imagined consumption can actually decrease our desire for that imagined food.”

Their discovery seems to have a wide range of potential applications——from reducing the intake of unhealthy foods to dampening cravings for addictive substances—and Morewedge and his colleagues are launching new studies to understand how this form of mental imagery might be used to regulate behaviors such as diet, smoking, and exercise routines.

“Right now, we’re beginning to test whether similar imagination inductions can be used to help people eat less unhealthy foods once they’ve started—or if they can lead people to make healthier food choices,” said Morewedge. “Moreover, we hope this kind of imagery induction can affect cravings for other kinds of addictive substances, like cigarettes, and we’re beginning to explore whether such repetitive mental imagery can help to reduce smokers’ cravings.”


Read an abstract of “Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption.”

Listen to a related Science podcast.

Watch an informal interview with Dr. Morewedge via Skype.