Our research program centers around three main themes: nonconscious processes in self-regulation, a grounded cognition approach to desire and motivated behavior, and contemplative approaches to self-regulation.
Nonconscious Processes in Self-Regulation
People often attempt to pursue multiple conflicting goals at the same time, particularly in the domain of health behavior. A prominent example is the goal of maintaining good health and a healthy body weight, which tends to conflict with the goal of enjoying tasty food that is continuously primed by social and hedonic cues in our food-rich environment. One part of our research program studies the nonconscious processes of self-regulation that guide behaviour in these circumstances. In addition, we conduct field experiments to investigate the use of goal priming for enhancing self-regulation in tempting environments, for example in a restaurant or when grocery shopping. We have shown, for example, that subtle primes activating the goals of health eating and dieting can lead to healthier menu choices and buying less unhealthy snack food, but only among participants who were motivated to control their weight. Based on these findings and on similar work on goal priming from other labs, we have suggested that goal priming can function as a situated cueing intervention for behaviour change, and we have outlined five principles for effective goal priming interventions.
Another important phenomenon that our work investigates is the portion size effect. This refers to the finding that individuals eat much more from larger portions of food and from larger packages compared to smaller ones – outside of conscious awareness, independent of hunger, and even when the food does not taste good. This effect is very well-documented, very powerful, but poorly understood. Together with David Marchiori (now a Postdoc at Utrecht University), we developed an anchoring and adjustment framework to understand the portion size effect, and to develop theory-based interventions to prevent it. We argue that the portion size serves as a normative anchor for the decision of how much to eat, and that individuals typically make insufficient adjustments away from this anchor. Building on this approach, we showed that providing alternative anchors in the form of pictorial vs. non-pictorial serving-size recommendations can reduce the portion size effect. Similarly, reducing the normative relevance of the portion size anchor, for example by pointing out that it is based on the behaviour of an outroup, reduces the portion size effect. Integrating this approach with goal priming, we have further shown that priming restrained eaters with the goal of healthy eating and dieting can eliminate the effect of large portions on their intake, presumably because the dieting goal overrides the reliance on the normative anchor. Currently, we are conducting research on the portion size effect on sugary drinks in adults and children and are further testing intervention strategies to prevent it.
Grounding Desire and Motivated Behavior
Another part of our work takes a grounded cognition perspective to better understand the cognitive and affective processes that trigger the desire for a certain product or behavior. We have found that people represent attractive food, compared to neutral food, heavily in terms of what is it like to eat it, based on their earlier reward experiences. In other words, people tend to ascribe features like “crunchy”, “salty”, “beer”, “with friends”, and “sofa” to chips/crisps, but less eating-oriented features like “orange”, “cold”, “long”, and “comes from the ground” to healthier foods like carrots. In addition, the percentage of these eating and reward simulation features for tempting food is associated with participants’ desire to eat the food, and it increases when participants are asked to focus on what makes a food desirable. These findings suggests that the desire for tempting food may indeed arise from simulations of earlier rewarding experiences, which are stored as situated conceptualizations in long-term memory. As a recent review suggests, this interpretation is highly consistent with findings from neuroimaging studies on responses to food cues, which show that attractive foods, compared to neutral foods, lead to stronger activations in gustatory and reward areas of the brain, particularly in individuals who are highly motivated to enjoy tasty food (e.g., individuals who are overweight or hungry).
Together with Larry Barsalou, we have developed grounded theory of desire and motivated behavior that integrates these and other findings to explain how desire arises. A preliminary version of this theory can be found in our chapter in “The Psychology of Desire”. We argue that people continuously store situated conceptualizations of rewarding experiences that integrate information about the current setting with actions performed in it, together with related sensory experiences, goals, bodily states, reward experiences, etc. These situated conceptualizations can later be activated by relevant cues in the environment, and produce simulations of non-present states or behaviors through pattern completion inferences. This may explain, for example, why simply passing by the coffee house where you typically get a muffin and a coffee lets you already taste the flavor of the coffee and feel the texture of the muffin in your mouth, possibly leading you to consume a second breakfast, despite the best intentions to watch your weight and wallet. In addition to explaining the experience of desire in response to environmental cues, this theory naturally explains nonconscious goal pursuit, habits, and goal priming, as well as the effectiveness of behavior change tools such as planning by means of implementation intentions. It also serves as a useful starting point for situating interventions to target nonconscious processes in behaviour change.
In our current work, we are also applying this perspective to better understand the situated representations of alcoholic drinks, and we are using it to develop evidence-based “nudges” that can trigger reward simulations in response to healthier products, to ultimately stimulate their consumption. In addition, understanding the role of eating and reward simulations serves as the basis for our work on mindfulness as a tool to diffuse the developing desire for food cues.
Contemplative Approaches to Self-Regulation
In our mindfulness work, we attempt to integrate contemplative science as a strategy for deconstructing and thereby regulating the desire that results from reward simulations. We rely on a two-component definition of mindfulness, which proposes that mindfulness consists of two components: (1) attention regulation, and (2) meta-cognitive, nonjudgmental awareness of one’s experiences as mental events (“decentering”). We have developed a brief mindful attention procedure to induce decentering in experimental studies. This procedure trains participants to attend closely to how they react to various attractive stimuli (such as images of tasty food), and to observe these reactions as transient mental events. In other words, participants learn to see that their reward simulations are mere thoughts, which arise and dissipate easily. We have found that applying this “decentering” perspective to one’s reward simulations in response to tempting stimuli can reduce the approach bias that these stimuli typically trigger. Adopting this perspective can further reduce unhealthy food choices in both the lab and the field, and can reduce the impact of motivational states and traits (e.g., hunger, sexual motivation) when responding to attractive appetitive stimuli (high-calorie food; opposite-sex others). We are currently examining the neural mechanism of these effects in a neuro-imaging study with Jing Chen and Larry Barsalou.
Recently, we have developed a theoretical account of how the two components of mindfulness – attention regulation and decentering – separately and together affect the fundamental processes that underlie self-control, for example, in eating, alcohol, smoking, etc. This approach may help us to understand the effects of mindfulness in terms of well-established cognitive processes, and to make mindfulness more generally accessible to researchers in psychology, both as a tool and as a research area.