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PROVO — Pictures of food on Instagram and Pinterest may seem to have the power to make mouths water and induce cravings, but looking at the images can actually make it less enjoyable to eat your own treats, according to a new study from BYU.
Just looking at pictures of what your friends are eating can make you feel like you've already had some yourself, according to the study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
“When you’re looking at food it is a very instinctual thing to evaluate it, like ‘that looks good’ or ‘ that doesn’t look good,’” said study co-author Jeff Larson. “The effect of evaluating is it can actually have the same effect as eating it and make you want it less.”
Participants rated pictures of sweet or salty food for the study, and then afterwards ate peanuts and rated the experience. If they looked at pictures of sweet food they enjoyed their peanuts just as much as normal, but those who looked at pictures of salty food weren’t as impressed, Larson said.
“You simulated so much salty flavor that you were satiated,” he said.
Improving the quality your meal may be as simple as avoiding your phone or computer.
"I don't use social media a lot, but my wife does — and just before dinner time, it makes sense to stop looking at Pinterest or Instagram or Facebook to help you enjoy your meal a lot more," Elder said.
Their observations may come in handy for those hoping to curb their appetite, Larson said. If you have a weakness for chocolate, one way to control it would potentially be to think about it more.
"If you're trying to diet and eat less, maybe bring on the pictures," Elder said.
The study could have relevance outside of the realm of food as well, Larson said. He said it was possible that looking at a lot of pictures of something like a beach could make a sandy vacation less enjoyable.
“It could actually make you tired of something before ever participate in it,” Larson said.
Advertisers should watch how much exposure their customers are getting, especially right before consumption, Elder said. Elder and Larson are both marketing professors at BYU's Marriott School of Management.
“If you over-advertise your product it can actually make even people who like it want it less and enjoy it less,” Larson said.
The study was based on a theory called Grounded Cognition, which posed the idea that our minds continually simulate or imagine sensory experiences based on pictures and words, Elder said.
"We expected that seeing pictures of food, because of the automatic images it generates, would make the food less appetizing after you 'tasted it with your eyes' a few times. And, it does," he said.
He said what surprised them the most was the number of ways their findings can be applied within advertising and social media. He said marketers should focus on some of these seemingly small elements that have large consequences.
It could actually make you tired of something before ever participate in it.
Elder also offered some advice to the general public.
"For everyone in general, keep weirdly taking pictures of your next meal," he said. "Just know that you and your friends might not enjoy it as much when you eat it."
On a personal note, Larson said he has never taken pictures of his food to post online.