Learned Overeating: Applying Principles of Pavlovian Conditioning to Explain and Treat Overeating

Curr Addict Rep. 2018;5(2):223-231. doi: 10.1007/s40429-018-0207-x. Epub 2018 Apr 21.


Purpose of review: This review provides an overview of recent findings relating to the role of Pavlovian conditioning in food cue reactivity, including its application to overeating and weight loss interventions.

Recent findings: Both in the laboratory and in real life, cue-elicited appetitive reactivity (e.g., eating desires) can be easily learned, but (long-term) extinction is more difficult. New findings suggest impaired appetitive learning in obesity, which might be causally related to overeating. The clinical analogue of extinction-cue exposure therapy-effectively reduces cue-elicited cravings and overeating. While its working mechanisms are still unclear, some studies suggest that reducing overeating expectancies is important.

Summary: Pavlovian learning theory provides a still undervalued theoretical framework of how cravings and overeating can be learned and how they might be effectively tackled. Future studies should aim to elucidate inter-individual differences in Pavlovian conditioning, study ways to strengthen (long-term) extinction, and investigate the working mechanisms of cue exposure therapy.

Keywords: Food cue exposure therapy; Food cue reactivity; Obesity; Overeating; Pavlovian conditioning.

Publication types

  • Review