I know I’ve been neglecting you recently. As a peace offering, here’s a class assignment I did a few weeks ago, based on an interview with a researcher from my university. I hope it will tide you over.
Imagine your favorite food.
Chocolate, cheddar cheese, chicken tikka masala, whatever your weakness, picture it just out of reach, glistening enticingly.
Although this food isn’t real, your body might be responding as if it were. Perhaps your mouth is watering or maybe you’re feeling the pang of cravings. But Carey Morewedge, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, says food fantasies can have an even stranger effect; he has shown that we can be satisfied by imaginary food.
When Morewedge and his collaborators, Young Eun Huh and Joachim Vosgerau, began their research into imaginary feasts, most psychologists believed that the more you thought about food, the more you craved it. The problem with this idea was that when you eat food in real life, you crave it less rather than more. Our first mouthful of a favorite dish makes us desire it more, but as we eat bite after bite, we start to lose interest. This loss of interest is called “habituation” and is part of every pleasurable experience, from food to sex to watching Gangnam Style.
So why doesn’t imagining food also make us lose interest? Morewedge and his group asked this question because when we imagine an experience, our bodies and minds often respond as if that imagined experience were real. They guessed that the reason previous studies had not observed habituation was because study participants didn’t take their imaginary experiences far enough.
“If I’m thinking about a Chipotle burrito, I’m thinking about the shape, what’s inside it, what it will taste like on the first bite, what it might smell like, or how warm it might be,” says Morewedge. “But I do not think about biting, chewing and swallowing the whole burrito.”
So the researchers asked people to think about biting, chewing and swallowing M&Ms. Each person in their study imagined performing 33 repetitive actions: either inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine, inserting 30 quarters into the machine and then eating 3 M&Ms, or inserting 3 quarters into the machine and eating 30 M&Ms. Inserting quarters was chosen as a control for imagining an action similar to picking up candy.
After their mental exertions, the participants were allowed to eat as many M&Ms as they wanted during preparation for a fictitious “taste test.” Psychologists often include these kinds of deceptive scenarios to prevent people guessing what behavior is being measured, which can influence their response.
After each experiment, Morewedge’s team weighed the M&M bowl to see how much the participant had eaten. The results showed that people who had imagined eating 30 M&Ms ate almost half as many real M&Ms as those who imagined eating only three. In effect, they had satisfied their desire for M&Ms without actually eating any.
This only worked when people pictured eating the M&Ms. When they instead imagined moving the candy into a bowl, the people who moved more imaginary M&Ms ended up eating more real M&Ms, rather than fewer. That kind of imagery only whetted their appetites.
But was this really habituation? To test this, the researchers looked for one of the hallmarks of habituation, called sensory specificity or the “dessert stomach” effect.
“We’ve all heard of this phenomenon,” says Morewedge. “When you go to a restaurant, you finish your entree and you can’t even imagine eating another bite. And then someone rolls out a cart of cheese or cakes, and all of a sudden you have a renewed interest in food.”
Just like real habituation, the imaginary M&Ms did not affect participants’ desire for other types of food, in this case, cubes of cheddar cheese. It worked the other way as well: eating more imaginary cheddar cheese meant people tended to eat fewer real cheese cubes, but it had no effect on how many M&Ms they ate.
So does this mean you can think yourself thin? Probably not. The dessert stomach effect is one reason why Morewedge doesn’t think we’ll see their results become the next diet craze. Imaginary eating habituates you to the food you have imagined, but makes other foods seem even more appealing.
Instead of using the research to come up with a diet miracle, the group is trying to apply their results to other contexts, like cigarette smoking, to see if mental habituation might be a useful tool for modifying addictive behavior.
But even if we are never able to harness the power of that imaginary chicken tikka masala for practical use, Morewedge and his colleagues have made an important theoretical advance. The line between imagination and physical experience is blurrier that we used to believe — a pleasant idea to contemplate the next time you get a hankering for something just out of your reach.