Human spatial memory is biased towards high-calorie foods: a cross-cultural online experiment

Rachelle de Vries*, Sanne Boesveldt, Emely de Vet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Background: Human memory appears to prioritise locations of high-calorie foods, likely as an adaptation for foraging within fluctuating ancestral food environments. Importantly, this “high-calorie bias” in human spatial memory seems to yield consequences for individual eating behaviour in modern food-abundant settings. However, as studies have mainly been conducted in European (Dutch) populations to date, we investigated whether the existence of the cognitive bias can be reasonably generalised across countries that vary on culturally-relevant domains, such as that of the USA and Japan. Furthermore, we investigated whether sociodemographic factors moderate the expression of the high-calorie spatial memory bias in different populations. Methods: In a cross-cultural online experiment, we measured the food location memory of diverse participants from the USA (N = 72; 44.4% Male; 54 ± 15.99 years) and Japan (N = 74; 56.8% Male; 50.85 ± 17.32 years), using a validated computer-based spatial memory task with standardised images of high-calorie and low-calorie foods. To directly compare the magnitude of the high-calorie spatial memory bias in a broader cultural scope, we also included data from a previous online experiment that identically tested the food spatial memory of a Dutch sample (N = 405; 56.7% Male; 47.57 ± 17.48 years). Results: In the US sample, individuals more accurately recalled (i.e. had lower pointing errors for) locations of high-calorie foods versus that of low-calorie alternatives (Mean difference = -99.23 pixels, 95% CI = [-197.19, -1.28]) – regardless of one’s hedonic preferences, familiarity with foods, and encoding times. Likewise, individuals in the Japanese sample displayed an enhanced memory for locations of high-calorie (savoury-tasting) foods (Mean difference = -40.41 pixels, 95% CI = [-76.14, -4.68]), while controlling for the same set of potential confounders. The magnitude of the high-calorie bias in spatial memory was similar across populations (i.e. the USA, Japan, and the Netherlands), as well as across diverse sociodemographic groups within a population. Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that the high-calorie bias in spatial memory transcends sociocultural boundaries. Since the cognitive bias may negatively impact on our dietary decisions, it would be wise to invest in strategies that intervene on our seemingly universal ability to efficiently locate calorie-rich foods.

Original languageEnglish
Article number14
JournalInternational journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2022


  • Cognitive bias
  • Cross-cultural analysis
  • Eating behaviour
  • Food spatial memory
  • Optimal foraging theory
  • Sociodemographic moderators


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