The mirror neuron mechanism of food consumption

Yi Zhang, Ph.D.

The Association for Psychological Science held its 23rd annual convention from May 26 to May 29 in Washington, DC. This year’s convention featured innovative research at the forefront of psychological science across a wide range of domains, with a strong focus on the neural mechanisms of various social and cognitive processes, including implicit cognition, consciousness, economic decision making, as well as moral reasoning. Many of these topics provide great insight for advancing our understanding of the drivers of human motivation, and are highly relevant to the subconscious consumer research at Sentient Decision Science.

Opening night started with the Keynote Address by Giacomo Rizzolatti, Università degli Studi di Parma, Italy: “The Mirror Mechanism: New Findings” . Dr. Rizzolatti’s pioneering discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys illustrates an important neural mechanism of action perception and action execution in humans. In essence, each time individuals observe an action performed by others, the same areas that code that action are activated in the motor system, as if they are performing the action themselves. This mechanism is important in helping individuals understand the action and intention of other people without involving intermediate cognitive processes.  It is as if mirror neurons add a personal touch to peoples understanding of other people’s intention through access to their own motor knowledge.

In one of Dr. Rizzolatti’s recent studies, children were asked to reach for a chocolate to put in their mouth (grasp to eat) or place on the shoulder (grasp to place) as illustrated below, their facial muscle that’s related to mouth opening was activated as soon as they reached for the object with an intention to eat.

Rizzolatti G et al. (2008) Mirror neurons and their clinical relevance.Nat Clin Pract Neurol doi:10.1038/ncpneuro0990

This kind of muscle activity was a direct output from the mirror neuron system, and it was activated even before the actual execution of the goal-directed behavior. Dr. Rizzolatti called these mirror neurons “action-constrained” neurons, meaning that they not only code grasping behavior, but differentiate “grasping to eat” from “grasping to place”.

Thus, motor behaviors that selectively activate the mirror neuron system involved in consumption are more likely to encourage the actual behavior of consumption. Here is a great example of how fundamental neuroscience research provides insight into consumer product consumption. Dr. Tibor Palfai from Boston University who also presented his work at the APS convention demonstrated this in an “action priming” study. In his study, participants were exposed to their preferred alcohol beverage, when they either lifted the beverage (habitual action) or leaned toward the beverage (modified action). Participants later engaged in a beverage tasting task and their urge to drink and volume of consumption were measured. Male participants who were primed with habitual action consumed significantly more than male participants in the modified action prime condition. It seems that the mirror neuron mechanism is probably at play here, since habitual action as compared to modified action is more likely to automatically activate drinking consumption via the mirror neuron system, given the extensive empirical research by Dr. Rizzolatti and his colleagues.

We can apply the mirror neuron principal in marketing campaigns for consumer products in many ways. For example, placing sample food items next to the shopping isle will likely engage consumer’s mirror neurons if they decide to pick up the sample and taste it. Vivid imagery of other people consuming the food item will also engage the mirror neurons. Via the mirror neuron system, watching other people drinking a bottle of beer will make you crave a sip on a hot summer day! Seasoned marketers, can you think of other ways to activate your consumer’s mirror neuron system?

See if the image below stirs anything in your mind, it is a picture of a consumer insights director getting much greater insight into the drivers of consumer behavior by using Sentient Decision Science research methods.


Cattaneo L et al. (2007) Impairment of actions chains in autism and its possible role in intention understanding. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104: 17825–17830

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