Anticipating desire and food choice : mental simulation as a strategy towards healthier choices

Naomí Cecilia Muñoz Vilches

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Why do consumers struggle with either choosing chocolate or an apple? Because consumers have an intrinsic bias towards instant pleasure. This innate bias toward instant gratification has contributed to an outstanding societal problem: unhealthy behaviour. Obesity rates are higher than ever. Just to give an example, the prevalence of obesity worldwide has tripled since 1975, 39% and 13% of adults aged over 18 were overweight or obese in 2016, respectively (WHO, 2021). Understanding consumer choices is primordial to tackle the unhealthy behaviour problem. In this light, desires and food choices are in the core of (un)healthy eating. In the realm of making consumers to make healthier choices, this thesis investigates two core concepts: desire and conflicting choices (health vs indulgent).

Moreover, we provided a first look into the processes that may be involved in the decision-making process when scenarios are simulated (namely a scenario focused on the process of eating vs one focused on the outcome of eating), and the behavioural consequences that accompany them. We examined the role of attentional bias, approach-avoidance tendencies, goal activation, and emotional responses in the evoked desire for the imagined food as well as a choice preference between a vice vs a virtue food. The mechanisms by which a process and an outcome simulation impact desires and choices were investigated at an implicit and explicit level.

The results of the explicit measures were quite consistent overall. We contributed by showing systematic differences between the effect of process and outcome simulation on desire and choice behaviour.

Process simulation increased the desire and likelihood of vice choices, while outcome simulation increased the desire and likelihood of virtue choices (shown consistently in Chapters 2, 3, and 4). Moreover, we contributed by showing that imagining different products categories (vice, virtue, and ambivalent) greatly impact the performance of process and outcome simulation. The effect of mental simulation on desire and choice behaviour was strong when a vice food was simulated, but when the object of imagination was a virtue food, the effects were less pronounced or non-existent.

Considering two different types of simulations and three product categories as objects of imagination throughout Chapter 2, 3 and 4, permitted us to show that when there is a match between the simulation and the product (e.g., simulating the process of eating a vice food or simulating the outcome of a virtue food), the simulation has greater effect either in favouring desire. It also showed that imagining either the process or the outcome of virtue or ambivalent food has a less pronounced effect on choice behaviour. This is likely because consumers see vice, virtue, and ambivalent products through different lenses, while vice products have a strong hedonic component, which is exacerbated by process simulation (Chapter 2), virtue products have a utilitarian component, which is enhanced with outcome simulation.

In Chapter 5, we show the role of an emotional reaction on healthy choice when a goal is induced and a mental simulation is performed. We showed that when the interaction between the mental simulation and the salient goal is perceived to be congruent, positive emotions such as happiness and satisfaction are elicited, whereas when this interaction is perceived as rather incongruent, negative emotions such as guilt and regret are elicited. Hence, process and outcome simulations moderated the effect that an induced goal has on healthy choices. Moreover, in Chapter 4 we found that process and outcome simulation impacted desire through a mediation effect of valence (positive or negative affect). Therefore, an emotional reaction seems to be a plausible mechanism by which mental simulation exerts an effect on (healthy) choices.

The results of the implicit measures showed that (1) when the process or the outcome of eating a vice food is simulated, there is a trend to increase attentional bias towards all types of food; (2) Process and especially outcome simulation slowed down the recognition of target words (e.g., healthy, diet, yummy, temptation), compared to normal words, which does not support that mental simulation activates a health or a temptation goal; and (3) Outcome simulation but not process simulation enhanced the approach tendency of unhealthy foods compared to avoidance. However, this result did not translate into the choice preference between a vice and a virtue food, where outcome simulation favoured healthy choice.

All in all, the mechanisms underlying the effect of mental simulation in healthy choice seem to be due to a conscious evaluative process, in which cognitive control and explicit desires are involved. In this light, when individuals hold a health goal, such as having a healthy diet or losing weight, both process and outcome simulation can be used to promote healthier choices. That is because both produce a perceived goal incongruency, which in turn elicits negative anticipated emotions such as guilt and regret. These anticipated emotions serve in the process of re-evaluation and making a choice that is more aligned with one’s goal.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • van Trijp, Hans, Promotor
  • Piqueras Fiszman, Betina, Co-promotor
Award date7 Apr 2022
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789464470680
Publication statusPublished - 7 Apr 2022


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