Grasping the grounded nature of mental simulation

Applications of mental simulation

 Given the fact that people automatically mentally simulate many of the perceptual experiences in our environment, we (Elder & Krishna, 2012), as well as other researchers (e.g., Eelen, Dewitte, & Warlop, 2013; Shen & Sengupta, 2012; Ping, Dhillon, & Beilock, 2009), have sought to understand the evaluative and behavioral consequences of such simulations. Particularly, we explore the impact of mental simulations on consumer behavior within an advertising context.

One of the particularly relevant consequences of mental simulation is the likelihood of someone purchasing the product advertised. As we imagine ourselves doing something, we’re more likely to intend to perform that behavior (Anderson, 1983). We expected this increase in behavioral intention would also occur for experiences simulated at a more automatic level.

We know from prior experimental and neuroscience research that our minds simulate motor behavior, or interacting with objects with our hands at an automatic level. But what are the characteristics of stimuli (pictures) that make mental simulation more likely? Mental simulations are essentially automatic replays of prior experiences from memory. Thus, pictures that look like our everyday environment should lead to mental simulations. One simple manipulation of this concept is to have a mug with the handle pointed to the right or left. For a right-handed person, having the handle on the right should facilitate greater simulation than having the handle on the left; the converse is true for a left-handed person.

Figure 1. Example of pictures used in studiesA typical study we conducted has participants view one of two advertisements: one with the product oriented toward the right and one with the product oriented toward the left. Participants view the advertisement and then provide their purchase intentions. The basic finding across studies is that orienting the product toward the viewer’s dominant hand leads to higher purchase intentions than orienting the product toward the viewer’s non-dominant hand. For example, in one of our studies, participants viewed a picture of a bowl of yogurt. This bowl of yogurt had the spoon oriented toward either the left or right. We additionally included a control condition without a spoon. We found the orientation of the spoon mattered, with purchase intentions being significantly higher when the spoon matched the participant’s dominant hand. Such a subtle manipulation as mirroring the visual contained within an advertisement leads to important downstream consequences on behavioral intentions.

Will these results for the match effect always hold?  Prior research would suggest not.  A number of previous studies show a strong connection between perception and our thought processes. For example, holding a pen in your mouth makes it harder to smile, which makes comics less funny (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988). Botox in the forehead makes furrowing your brow nearly impossible, which makes recognizing emotions such as anger and sadness more difficult (Havas, Glenberg, Gutowski, Lucarelli, & Davidson, 2010). Remembering information you’ve heard is harder when the message itself contains auditory imagery, because these processes compete for resources (Unnava, Agarwal, & Haugtvedt, 1996).

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