Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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9-Dec-2010

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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Imaginary food can make you full



Example of a trial in the reinforcement game in Experiment 5. At any time, participants could click on the image of cheese to earn cheese at the end of the experiment and continue the game, or could click on the stop sign to end the game.
[Image courtesy of Carey Morewedge]

Thinking of a candy bar for a moment is probably enough to make your mouth water or your stomach growl. But, according to a new study, if you just imagine eating an entire candy bar—visualizing every bite, chew, and swallow in your head—then you'd probably eat less of an actual candy bar if you were to get your hands on one.

Most people agree that the first bite of food is usually the best. As you become used to the food, though, each bite is less exciting than the last one. Getting used to a food like that is known as habituation, and Carey Morewedge and colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University have now used chocolate and cheese to show that imagination can be enough to habituate a person to those foods.

The researchers performed experiments in which a group of participants were asked to imagine themselves eating large amounts of chocolate candies or cheese. Other participants were asked to imagine themselves eating less of those foods or more of a different food. Some participants were asked to imagine themselves doing something different altogether.

After the participants had imagined these tasks in their heads, the researchers set a large bowl filled with either chocolate candy or cheese in front of the participants. Then they watched as the participants ate as much of the candy or cheese as they wanted to.

Morewedge and his team found that participants who had first imagined eating large amounts of candy or cheese actually ate much less of that food than the other participants.

In light of this discovery, the researchers suggest that the kind of repetitive mental pictures that come with imagining eating an entire candy bar—biting, chewing, and swallowing—has very different effects than a brief mental image, which is often known to make a person's mouth water.

In the future, repetitive thoughts of eating chocolate candy like that might even help children around the world from eating too much and getting stomachaches! This research appears in the 10 December 2010 issue of Science.

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