Tell me what you imagine and I will tell you what you want

Tell me what you imagine and I will tell you what you want

What is your favourite snack? When thinking about it, did you picture it in your mind? If so, you have just done a mental simulation of your favourite snack. Along with the mental simulation, many cognitive and physiological processes just activated. For example, you may have activated some regions in your brain in charge of reward value, and you may be a bit hungrier, that just become worse when you keep on thinking about that desirable food.

Have you seen how easy is to just tempt you? This is one of the reasons why is so difficult to achieve the promise “next Monday I do start my diet”. We naturally tend to prioritise short-term goals, which provide immediate gratification (i.e., eating the mouth-watering snack) and delay long-term goals (i.e., dieting to achieve a fit body and health). Since long-term goals are further in the future, consumers are often faced to the dilemma of whether to eat or not to eat the mouth-watering snack or to choose a healthier snack. The dilemma in consumers’ mind can be seen as the conflict between a long-term goal and a short-term goal.

Our latest paper investigates the effect of mental simulation as a relatively new strategy to possibly shift the balance between direct gratification and the consideration of longer-term benefits necessary to make healthier choices. Specifically we distinguish between imagining the consumption process versus the outcome of eating a specific product. In two studies, we show that participants under process simulation, i.e., imagining the process of eating, had a higher desire for the imagined product compared to a control condition, but in a choice task between a healthy and an unhealthier product, more people chose the unhealthier product over the healthier one. On the other hand, outcome simulation, i.e., imagining the outcome of eating, also generated a higher desire for the imagined product, but in this case people chose the healthier option.

This study contributes to the development of a strategy that can be used by individuals or by public institutions, by introducing communication campaigns that frame the type of product in a way that will be attractive to people, and effective to generate an impact in their behaviour. This remains yet a challenge in the realm of healthy behaviour. Most efforts are being put in providing information to consumers in packaging (such as “low/high in calories”) but this does not necessarily make consumers think of the consequences, and other aspects might dominate and evoke more intensely process-related simulations (tempting us).

It’s so easy to just imagine.

So next time you feel that you cannot decide (conflicting choice), or when you feel that little voice “no, don’t do it”. Take 1 minute and try to simulate the benefits/consequences and emotions that you would have AFTER having consumed the tasty food that is tempting you, and ask yourself, is that what I expected? Talk to yourself from the “future” and use the information of  “how you felt” to make a decision. This exercise will help you to win when you balance the benefits you get by eating it (or buying it) and the bad feeling it causes for not being aligned with your long-term goals (such as having good health or having better performance on the sport).

Read the entire paper: Muñoz-Vilches, N. C, van Trijp, H. C. M., & Piqueras-Fiszman, B. (2020). Tell me what you imagine and I will tell you what you want: The effects of mental simulation on desire and food choice. Food Quality and Preference, 83, 103892.

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