Exposure to Cues of Harsh or Safe Environmental Conditions Alters Food Preferences

Jim Swaffield, S. Craig Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)69-76
Number of pages8
JournalEvolutionary Psychological Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun. 2015


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


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