Ways Whereby Mental Simulations Drive and Enhance Consumer Experiences

People can run mental simulations in their minds in which they may reconstruct and ‘foresee’ actions, activities and events without them actually happening. A simulation may be utilised during planning or preparation before taking action, as the basis for expectations, or for pleasure from ‘reliving’ pleasant past experiences (as preview to the next occasion). The simulation of eating a chocolate cake, for instance, can be triggered on seeing it on the counter of the coffee house; when someone else is taking a bite of the cake; or just from seeing a photo image of such a cake in a brochure without the cake being present (if one is craving enough for chocolate, even the verbal mention of it here might be enough).

Mental simulations are closely connected with mental imagery, especially visual imagery, as the means of activating the simulation (simulations, however, do not have to be experienced consciously to have an effect on human behaviour and actual experiences). Nonetheless, the ‘script’ and impact of a simulation depend frequently on the relevance, approachability, salience or vividness of the cues that elicit the simulation. This could be particularly applicable in the context of consumer behaviour and experiences, as when simulations are elicited by marketing-driven cues (e.g., advertising, merchandise displays).

Most often simulations are run for a practical purpose or benefit. Even when one recollects an enjoyable walk next to a mountain lake, a mental simulation of an event of this kind might be run in his or her head in expectation of an upcoming vacation. Simulations usually involve some action that the person is trying or rehearsing in his or her mind; in some cases, the simulation may elicit further subjective experiences (e.g., a sensation or emotion).

The simulation could concentrate on ‘perception’ of an object, person or scenery, only that these ‘targets’ are not actually perceived in the real external world, hence it is a simulation of perception [1]. Yet, similar areas in the brain (e.g., the visual cortex) are activated in a way that could produce an ‘imaged’ experience like perception. It could start with a cue of the ‘real thing’ (e.g., a cube) but then something would happen in the simulation (e.g., the cube is rotated) which does not truly occur physically. The simulation might be executed to help the individual in answering a question. Consider, for example, the mountain walk: a simulation might be triggered by viewing a photo of the lake site visited previously or similar to it, or by its name mentioned in a conversation. In the simulation, the ‘prospective tourist’ may simulate how a walk by a mountain lake could look and feel in his or her next vacation (it would likely be based on remembered experiences, but not necessarily the same).

A mental simulation can aid in counterfactual thinking, as in imagining or figuring out how an event could have proceeded better if one had acted differently (e.g., how a trip could have proceeded enjoyably if the driver had not checked his call list on the car’s multimedia screen and an accident had been prevented). However, a mental simulation in the counterfactual thought process is productive and beneficial if the individual believes he or she could change its course by taking an action (e.g., by studying longer for the exam, as opposed to a case where an illness could not be avoided by one’s own behaviour).

Simulations are likely to have a greater role in more engaging tasks, sometimes more complex, of problem solving. In order to solve a problem, one may try certain steps ahead, using different alternative strategies, before taking the real action (i.e., the simulation is utilised as an aid for making a decision). In a simulation of action, brain areas in the frontal lobe and premotor cortex are activated just as if a motion would be performed, but it stops before the primary motor cortex executes any muscular movements [1]. Take for example two problem scenarios: (1) Jim is in a furniture store to buy a new sofa he intends to place in his living room; he considers a candidate sofa but is not sure how it should be positioned, so he simulates in his mind moving the sofa to different positions, estimating its length against walls of the room, to test if and how it would fit best. (2) Jane has to move several boxes and additional items in her car to another apartment; as she considers how to arrange them in the rear baggage space of her car, she prepares by simulating in her mind how they should be placed to fit in, before lifting items and putting them in the car. A simulation of this type, that employs consciously mental (visual) imagery, has been called ‘mental practice‘ — people prepare for an activity by practising the activity, with the expected muscular movements, in their minds, without physically performing them, a form of ‘thought experiment’ at minimum risk [2].

A mental simulation may involve a ‘chain of effects’. A simulation that starts in one sensory modality (e.g., visual) may evoke an imagery in another sensory modality (e.g., gustatory) within the simulation. For example, the simulated mental picture of a chocolate cake elicits its chocolate sweet creamy taste, filling the mouth in anticipation of really eating this cake. Based on associative mechanisms in the brain (i.e., in frontal lobes, sensory areas), it is possible for a given simulated perception to elicit another simulated perception (e.g., in a different sensory modality) while the brain is preparing for actions, hence anticipation [1].

Papies, Best, Gelibter, and Barsalou (2017) propose explaining simulations and their effects through the framework of grounded cognition theory of desire and motivated behaviour [3]. The explanation is based on reactivating, or reenacting, information from memories of past experiences as a foundation for developing current reward and consumption simulations. During consumption experiences consumers learn and encode different types of information, including sensory input, affective experience, actions performed, bodily states, goals pursued, and various other contextual aspects (e.g., situations, objects and persons). These comprehensive representations, that consumers continuously update, are called situated conceptualisations. On an arising occasion, when encountering later stimuli that can serve as cues to learned experiences, two processes occur: firstly, the best-matching situated conceptualisation, based on the common cues, is reactivated; secondly, any aspects in the situated conceptualisation that are not currently present may be simulated, that is reenacted, for creating pattern completion inferences. It could be interpreted as a method of completing missing information that seems relevant to the current situation, and thus adapts the knowledge from the situated conceptualisation to build a simulation of what might be expected in the new situation. The active situation can thereby affect consumer experiences, motivation and behaviour.

  • For illustration, recall the example above of the walk by a mountain lake: Suppose that Dave sees a photo on a website of a lake in the Alpine mountains, while planning his next vacation, that resembles a beautiful location he has previously visited. It is not quite the same place, and yet it includes enough cues to reactivate the situated conceptualisation based on the previous trip experience. Then, additional aspects may be inferred from that conceptualisation (e.g., his enjoyment from the sights while mountain trekking) to simulate a walk by the newly encountered lake, before Dave possibly decides to book a holiday stay at a nearby resort location.

A simulated experience is likely to include several components. For example, following a cue of ‘strawberry’ (by word or picture), a consumer may be able to simulate a whole experience of eating real strawberries, by activating relevant neural systems: simulating their red colour (colour system), the sweet taste (gustatory system), the appropriate behaviour of eating a strawberry (motor system), and the reward or pleasure from eating strawberries (motivational systems). It is important to note the assumption of Papies and her colleagues that ‘multimodal simulation underlies the process of pattern completion inference’. As an example, they give the experience of visiting a café: Each activity in the café (e.g., drinking the coffee, reading an article, conversing with friends), may engage different respective modalities. Anticipating the coffee will elicit simulations of drinking, tasting and reward; simulating a smile on seeing a friend coming for conversation (one may assume that anticipating an article should elicit simulation of seeing, reading, and raising interest in the content of the article).

The examples given by Papies et al. overall concern appetitive cues of food and drinks, though the perspective of grounded cognition is not meant to be restrictive to this domain; the domain of food and drinks has been studied rather frequently and thus provides them more opportunities to demonstrate the application of this theory to desire and to motivated behaviour in consuming food and drinks. Interestingly, they explain how the cues contained in an image of food (e.g., cake, noodles) or drink (e.g., tea, beer) can increase the motivation of viewers to simulate themselves consuming it. What is needed is to make the food or drink appear easier to interact with: show a cake with a teaspoon next to it on the plate; show a bowl of noodles with a hand holding a fork; show a pot or cup of tea with its handle facing the hand of the viewer, as he or she is habituated to hold it. The added cues facilitate making pattern completion inferences towards action. Such images are likely to provide a stronger drive to simulate approaching and eating the food, increasing its attraction and desire for its reward (pleasure).

However, one has to address also differences in individual traits and personal states or situations, since they can affect simulations and lead consumers to different outcomes (i.e., expected behaviours). For example, consumers may react differently to a cue of ‘hamburger’ if one is hungry or is trying to keep a diet regime. Individuals higher in trait of self-control are more likely to avoid temptations of less healthy food (and their simulations would reflect that). Adding in comment: differences in context of consumption may influence the relevance or validity of inference from a more familiar situated conceptualisation to a current situation, e.g., the difference between eating a hamburger sandwich in a fast-food restaurant versus a full-service restaurant (in-between there is a newer branch of quick service restaurants, food hall & buffet style, that may serve good quality and tasty food).

  • Note: Papies et al. discuss at length evidence on activation of different neural systems. For example, they associate the difference in expected reaction (in actual and simulated behaviour) between one who is hungry and another who is keeping a diet to a distinction between activating a ventral reward pathway versus a dorsal control pathway, respectively. They lucidly state: “These simulations prepare for effective, goal-directed action, for example, grabbing the food in order to eat and enjoy it or rejecting it in order to protect one’s body weight” (p. 409).

The appetite or anticipation in simulations may be enhanced through product extrinsic cues, such as: (1) the tone insinuated by product labels (or in menu), where a product (e.g., ice cream) is described as “indulgent” versus “sensible” (the former suggests the ice cream is higher in calories, increasing appetite); (2) a higher price for wine enhances anticipation for higher quality wine than a lower price quote, and subsequently when drinking the higher priced wine consumers are likely to report it tastes better. Additionally, choosing the food item through a touch screen has been shown to lead to more affect-driven and pleasure-oriented choices (Papies et al. suggest that touching the item image directly on the screen might be more effective in reenacting a motor behaviour previously performed, thereof making it easier to simulate a more rewarding interaction with the product).

Mental simulations can be a very useful tool in preparation to perform various tasks, or they may help in developing expectations and anticipating rewards. Often simulations are combined with imagery, more frequently visual, but people do not necessarily have to be aware of the imagery (imagery is more likely to be used consciously in simulation when solving problems); simulations that are triggered in reaction to external cues can occur automatically, unconsciously, and require low cognitive effort. It is also important to take consideration of differences in personality traits, personal states, goals, and situations. Marketers and retailers can design cues in their products, presentations or displays, that drive or elicit more favourable simulations with desirable rewards, leading to enhanced actual experiences, accordingly.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


[1] Conscious Thought as Simulation of Behaviour and Perception; Germund Hesslow, 2002; Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6 (6), pp. 242-247 (available for reading online at Academia.edu).

[2] Consciousness, Mental Imagery and Action; David F. Marks, 1999; British Journal of Psychology, 90, pp. 567-585.

[3] The Role of Simulations in Consumer Experiences and Behavior: Insights from the Grounded Cognition Theory of Desire; Esther K. Papies, Maisy Best, Elena Gelibter, and Lawrence W. Barsalou*, 2017; Journal of Advances in Consumer Research, 2 (4), pp. 403-417. (* Based primarily on theory and research by Barsalou about cognition, concepts and symbols.)