The ‘spoon in the soup effect’

For many years now, marketeers have been using slogans with subtle instructions, like Intel or Apple with their slogans: ‘Imagine the Possibilities’ and ‘Think Different’, or the simple ‘Imagine’ slogan...


A well-known term in neuroscience is ‘grounded cognition’. This means that when our bodies are in a certain state, perform an act, or even while imagining something, this influences our cognitive activity. A part of grounded cognition is embodied cognition, which focuses on how the body and its movements influence our cognition. A nice example from a study is that when people put a pen between their teeth – which stimulates the muscles involved in smiling – and watch cartoons, they evaluate the cartoons higher on the ‘funny’ scale than people without the pen. The input the brain receives, like the activation of the muscles involved in smiling, causes ‘priming’ in the brain and the information (the cartoon) will be processed differently in the brain. In this case this is called the facial feedback hypothesis.\nOur imagination works in a similar way. When we see a new object, this is stored in our memory. When this object or a representation of it is seen again, our memory starts simulating the original experience which lets us feel the same emotions we had back then. For example when eating chocolate: your brain stores different things; What did it look like? How did it feel? What was the taste? This is happening in different areas of the brain. When seeing that piece of chocolate again, these parts of the brain will be activated again en the experience will start playing itself in our minds. \nA lot of research has been done about this process. A nice example from a research is that when people imagine listening to Beethoven, there is an actual activation of the auditory part of the brain.

Visual depiction effect

To be able to recall specific memories related to events, the ‘Visual depiction effect’ is being used. This means that when a specific representation of an object is presented, it causes the owner to imagine a certain situation more easily. Because of this effect, the observer will (unknowingly) make a mental simulation of the object, which triggers the memory of previous use of the product.


In this study, the visual depiction effect was the main topic. The researchers showed visual stimuli to their participants. These stimuli contained a certain dish with the cutlery either on the left or the right side of the plate. De participants filled in a survey which questioned their willingness to buy the product, in this case the depicted dish. It was found that when the cutlery was placed at the same side as the dominant hand of the participant (for example; the fork is on the right and the participant is right handed), the willingness to buy the product was higher. This would suggest that the visual depiction effect is in place here and the participant was more willing to buy the product because of the simulation of the product in the brain. In this experiment, the hand of the participant was necessary for the mental imprint of eating the product. Assuming the theory stating that with simulation the same brain areas are concerned as compared to the real action, the researchers next tried to block the simulation. The participants were shown the same stimuli, but now their dominant hand was occupied by having it holding an object. As expected, the willingness to buy the product was lower in this experiment. It seems that the participants were not able to make the simulation, although this was possible when the non-dominant hand was occupied by having it holding an object. Finally, the researchers also looked at the reversed effect: does the willingness to buy an object decrease if a negative stimulus is shown? This seemed to be true as well; if a negative stimulus was shown (for example: unappealing food), and the cutlery was on the same side as the dominant hand, the willingness to buy the product was decreased.


The results from this study suggest that humans can make better mental simulations of objects when the object is being presented in a situation from everyday life. Memories of previous good, or bad experiences with the product are triggered by this setting, resulting in an influence on the willingness to buy an object. This shows how even a small detail in advertising can considerably influence consumer behavior!

Guest contributor Dr. Roeland Dietvorst
Guest contributor Dr. Roeland Dietvorst
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