Exposure to cues of harsh or safe environmental conditions alters food preferences


Swaffield J & Roberts SC (2015) Exposure to cues of harsh or safe environmental conditions alters food preferences. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1 (2), pp. 69-76.

In humans, psychological stress is positively correlated with an increased desire for certain energy-dense food items, indicating that stress may trigger foraging behavior that adapts to perceived current and future resource availability. However, the extent to which such processes influence desire for different kinds of foods remains unclear. Here, we examine the effects of perceived environmental conditions on food preferences across the food spectrum of dairy, meats, vegetables, fruit, grains, and sweets. We first showed images of 30 different food items to participants and recorded their stated desire to eat each kind of food. We then repeated this procedure after exposing participants to cues of either a harsh or a safe environment. As predicted, we found cues of environmental harshness increased the desirability of energy-dense food items. However, there was also evidence for decreased desirability for energy-dense food items following exposure to cues of a relatively safe environment. Our findings indicate that simple manipulations of perceived environmental conditions may trigger changes in desire for different kinds of food. Our study has relevance for increasing efforts to understand eating behavior in order to promote uptake of healthier diets.

Food preference; Optimal foraging; Harsh environment; Stress; Evolutionary consumption; Life history theory

Evolutionary Psychological Science: Volume 1, Issue 2

Publication date30/06/2015
Publication date online06/02/2015