The speed of wanting a food

After eating a food, how fast can you implicitly want something else?

Here’s an anecdote many of you might be familiar with. It was 3pm and I was at the office working when my eyes were starting to close. What a terrible feeling! I decided to go downstairs to the cafeteria and order a cup of cappuccino. When I started to go back upstairs I realized that I had the cappuccino in one hand and a piece of banana bread in the other. I had the immediate flashback of watching the pieces of banana bread smiling at me from the counter area. As some people know, a well-made banana bread is my weakness!

This is a quite common behaviour: we might not be really hungry but just the sight of food, for instance, will make something switch on in our brain and activate an immediate motivation, which often triggers behaviour. Most probably if I had been more awake I would just have gotten what I went for (my dose of caffeine) and would have also rationally considered getting the banana bread. Why this happens can be explained with dual-processes theories, which state that two mental processes (e.g., controlled vs. automatic, explicit vs. implicit, reflective vs. impulsive) guide behaviour and judgment.

While it is still a big challenge to study these processes in real life, lots of researchers have developed new ways of exploring it in a “laboratory” setting. One way is, for instance, by looking at how fast participants in laboratory studies approach different types of foods, or by looking at how fast they associate them to motivation statements like “I want” and “I don’t want”. Many times these studies are computer-based, so participants have to respond with a joystick or a keyboard when they see images in the screen. These measures have been shown to be valid and in agreement with what people self-report, and lots of the studies focus on hunger (sometimes even 15 hours without eating!) and dietary restraint, among other characteristics. For instance, participants in a hunger condition would show stronger approach reactions towards foods than those in a satiated condition.

A question that my colleague Alexandra Kraus and I had was whether simply having eaten a food (a sandwich) would decrease the immediate motivation towards that food (the sandwich) in favour of another one (candies) and whether we could capture that very quick process. We conducted an experiment in Denmark where normal-weight people had to associate the two foods with liking and wanting associations in a computer-based task (Implicit Association Task). Before this task, they were given a bacon-and-chicken sandwich and a pack of candies. Half of them ate the sandwich, while the other half just had it in front of them and could not it eat (they could at the very end!). After this they also rated liking and wanting for the two food products.

Our results showed that participants had approach tendencies towards sandwiches (vs. the candies) in the group that had not eaten the sandwich before the test, while relative approach tendencies towards sweets (vs. the sandwiches) were observed in the group that had eaten the sandwich. These findings were in line with their reported “wanting” to eat the sandwich and suggest that it is possible to detect automatic motivational changes (we are talking about milliseconds!) for either one of the two products. Liking, both implicit and self-reported, was more stable and did not differ between the two groups of participants now between the two foods, that is, there was no clear preference! However, we found that the fuller participants among those that ate the sandwich did show a slight implicit preference towards the candies. This results seem to suggest that eating a food, although not until feeling completely full, decreases our immediate wanting system for it, and that our internal liking only starts to shift in this same direction when we feel very full.

This research highlights how fast our changes in implicit wanting can be, apparently faster than our liking! I indeed reflected on this conclusion while sinking my teeth into the banana bread going back to my office.

This research was published in Food Quality and Preference, co-authored by Dr. Alexandra Kraus and myself. For more details about this publication you can visit the original source.

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Betina Piqueras Fiszman

About Betina Piqueras Fiszman

Betina's research focuses on the exploration of new ways to understand consumers food preferences and motivations, both explicit and implicit. I investigate these processes by looking into relationships between the sensory characteristics of the product, consumer traits, cognitive and contextual factors, and their combined effect on perception, behaviour, and memorability.

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