Our work takes a grounded cognition perspective to understand the  processes that trigger the desire for a certain product or behavior.  We suggest that appetitive cues, such as foods or drinks, trigger consumption and reward simulations, based on situated representations of previous experiences, which can increase the motivation to consume.  Using this theoretical framework, we study the basic mechanisms of desire and motivated behaviour, as well as applications in different domains of consumer and health behaviour.

Grounded cognition theory of desire

Together with Larry Barsalou, we have developed a grounded cognition theory of desire and motivated behavior that integrates our and other labs’ findings to explain how desire arises.  A preliminary version of this theory can be found in our chapter in “The Psychology of Desire, with more recent versions and applications to consumer behaviour here, and with links to much recent work in our lab and social psychology more generally here.  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.

Hydration behaviour

Our work on the cognitive processes in desire has sparked promising applications in different domains of consumer behaviour, on which we work closely with key stakeholders.  Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and in collaboration with Danone (France), we currently study the role of consumption and reward simulations underlying the desire for sugary drinks and water, and we examine how rewarding  simulations can be triggered for water that will increase its attractiveness as a drink and therefore, stimulate healthier choices. We also examine hydration behaviour more generally, to understand how drinking is affected by habits, context, and consumer identity.

Almudena Claassen examines the representations of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), and whether these can be used to increase the appeal of water among regular SSB consumers.  Johanna Werner studies the roles of habits and reward in food and drink choices across different situations with a novel Situated Assessment Method.  Amy Rodger is developing an app-based intervention to increase water intake in low water drinkers, based on an in-depth analysis of water drinking motivations and barriers.

We have two open, fully-funded PhD positions on hydration behaviour available, collaborating with Prof. Matthew Chalmers in the Social AI Doctoral Training Program.

Lab members: Almudena Claassen, Amy Rodger, Johanna Werner (Barsalou Lab), Esther K. Papies, 2 PhD positions tbc

Sustainable food choices

Reducing meat and dairy consumption is the most effective strategy for reducing an individual’s environmental footprint.  Given mainstream consumers’ preferences for meat, however, scalable strategies are needed to make plant-based foods more attractive.  We examine how consumers and the food industry communicate about plant-based and meat-based foods, and how the attractiveness of plant-based foods can be increased, for example by emphasising features of the consumption experience. Here, we collaborate with the Better Buying Lab at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a world-leading sustainability think-tank (, and how individual consumers experience the transition to sustainable diets.

Steff Farrar examines the language that is associated with desire for well-known, meat-based foods, and how this can be used to increase the appeal of novel, plant-based foods.  This ESRC-funded project will result in a Shiny-App available to the food and food service industry to help create attractive descriptions of sustainable foods.  Tess Davis studies how both meat-eaters and vegans represent and communicate about plant-based and meat-based foods, to better understand the societal challenges of transitioning to a more sustainable food system.  Lara Wehbe examines the transition to sustainable diets from a self-control perspective, establishing which individual and social (identity) factors help and hinder sustainable choices for mainstream consumers.

Lab members: Tess Davis, Lara Wehbe, Stephanie Farrar, Esther K. Papies

Mechanisms of mindfulness

Understanding the role of eating and reward simulations also serves as the basis for our work on mindfulness as a tool to diffuse unwanted food desires.  Here, we learn from contemplative science to develop strategies for deconstructing the subjective realism of one’s consumption and reward simulations, and thereby reducing the desire that results from them. 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.  We also collaborate with Johan Karremans and Kim Lien van der Schans at Radboud University Nijmegen to examine mindfulness effects in romantic relationships.  This basic-science 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.

Lab members: Betül Tatar, Esther K. Papies