Locating calories: Does the high-calorie bias in human spatial memory influence how we navigate the modern food environment?

Rachelle de Vries*, Sanne Boesveldt, Emely de Vet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Human memory appears to be adaptively “biased” towards remembering the locations of (fitness-relevant) high-calorie nutritional resources. It remains to be investigated whether this high-calorie bias in human spatial memory influences how individuals navigate the modern food environment, and whether it is proximally associated with attentional processes. 60 individuals completed computer-based food eye-tracking and spatial memory tasks in a lab setting, as well as a food search and covert food choice task in an unfamiliar supermarket. The high-calorie spatial memory bias was replicated, as individuals more accurately recalled locations of high-calorie relative to low-calorie foods, regardless of hedonic evaluations or familiarity with foods. Although individuals were faster at (re)locating high-calorie (versus low-calorie) items in the supermarket, the bias did not predict a lower search time for high-calorie foods, or a higher proportion of high-calorie food choice. Rather, an enhanced memory for high-calorie food locations was associated with a lower perceived difficulty (i.e. greater ease) of finding high-calorie items in the supermarket, which may potentiate later choice of a high-calorie food. The high-calorie spatial memory bias was also found to be expressed independently of the amount of visual attention individuals allocated to high-calorie versus low-calorie foods. Findings further substantiate the notion that human spatial memory shows sensitivity to the caloric content of a potential resource and automatically prioritizes those with greater energy payoffs. Such a spatial mechanism that was adaptive for energy-efficient foraging within fluctuating ancestral food environments could presently yield maladaptive “obesogenic” consequences, through altering perceptions of food search convenience.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104338
JournalFood Quality and Preference
Early online date26 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Attention bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Food choice
  • Food search
  • Human spatial memory
  • Optimal foraging


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