Flavours of desire - Cognitive representations of appetitive stimuli and their motivational implications

How do people cognitively represent appetitive stimuli? Do interactions with appetitive stimuli shape how we think about them, and do such representations affect motivation to consume? Although much is known about how people respond to appetitive stimuli, little is known about how they are represented. We examine this in the domain of sugar-sweetened drinks, which constitute a significant self-control problem for many people. Given people’s rich and diverse learning histories of consuming them, we propose that representations of these stimuli will show high variability, and that they will reflect idiosyncratic simulations, or re-enactments, of previous consumption experiences. Representing drinks in terms of consuming and enjoying them may predict the motivation to consume. In three experiments (total N = 457), participants described non-alcoholic drinks in a “feature listing task”, a free production task to assess cognitive representations of concepts through natural language. We also measured consumption frequency, desire to drink, and intake (Exp. 3), and we measured (Exp. 1 and 2) or manipulated (Exp. 3) thirst. Illustrating the variability of participants’ representations of drinks, participants reported a large number of different features (210-331 unique features per drink). Drinks were described heavily with words related to consumption and reward experiences, especially sugary drinks, and especially when consumed frequently. Consumption and reward features predicted desire and intake, more strongly than thirst. These findings suggest that simulations of previous rewarding interactions play a key role in representations of appetitive stimuli, and that understanding these representations may be useful across domains of appetitive behaviour.