Grasping the grounded nature of mental simulation

In our context, therefore, you should only be able to mentally simulate interacting with the product in the advertisement if you have your hands free. Having your hands occupied should place a restriction on the resources you need for simulation. We tested the impact of occupying resources as well by having participants hold clamps in their hand(s) while viewing the advertisement. Specifically, we had four conditions: holding a clamp in the dominant hand, holding a clamp in the non-dominant hand, holding a clamp in each hand, and not holding clamps at all. Participants then viewed an advertisement for cake, where the fork was on the left or on the right (match or mismatch to the participant’s handedness). As expected, when participants were not holding any clamps, the match condition led to higher purchase intentions than the mismatch condition. When participants held the clamp in their non-dominant hand, the same results held, because participants could still simulate with their dominant hand. However, when participants held the clamp in their dominant hand, the mismatch orientation led to higher purchase intentions than the match condition. Holding the clamp in their dominant hand left their non-dominant hand free, making the mismatch orientation a match condition. When participants were holding clamps in both hands, the orientation didn’t matter as much, because neither hand was available for simulation.

The general finding that having participants hold something in their hand impacts motor simulation and consequent evaluations was recently replicated by Shen and Sengupta (2012). In addition, the researchers found that if the object held matched the object in the picture (e.g., holding a fork while viewing a picture of noodles), participants mentally simulated the action more easily, leading to higher evaluations of the object.

The positive impact of matching the object orientation to handedness makes sense when the object is positive, but what about when the object is negative? Mental simulation should make a good thing better, but a bad thing worse. Think about going to the dentist, which for most of us isn’t the most enjoyable experience. If you don’t imagine the experience, it’s bad, but not awful. However, if you start to imagine the prick of the needle for lidocaine, the grinding and scraping feel of the tools, and the damp, burning smell from your teeth, suddenly the dentist seems worse. We explored this concept with conditions of automatic mental simulation. We found that mental simulation has a magnifying effect. When participants were presented with a good experience (asiago cheese and tomato soup), the match between orientation and handedness led to higher purchase intentions than the mismatch. But when participants were presented with a bad experience (cottage cheese and tomato soup, which was pretested to be a negative experience for the population), the match led to lower purchase intentions than the mismatch.

Although there may be situations in which mental simulation is inhibited (e.g., while holding something), or in which simulation leads to negative consequences (e.g., when the object is negative), when the mind simulates motor experiences at a more automatic level, the consequences are generally positive.

What this growing body of work on more automatic mental simulations tells us is that our minds are learning from our bodily states and experiences. In turn, we use this learned information in preparation for interaction with our environment. We specifically focused this review on motor simulation; however, automatic simulation of other sensory experiences, such as taste, touch, and sound, provide equally intriguing areas for further exploration.


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