"Just not knowing" can make life sweeter (and saltier): Reward uncertainty alters the sensory experience and consumption of palatable food and drinks

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2021 Oct;150(10):2015-2035. doi: 10.1037/xge0001029. Epub 2021 Mar 18.


Reward uncertainty can prompt exploration and learning, strengthening approach and consummatory behaviors. For humans, these phenomena are exploited in marketing promotions and gambling products, sometimes spurring hedonic consumption. Here, in four experiments, we sought to identify whether reward uncertainty-as a state of "not knowing" that exists between an action and a positively valanced outcome-enhances the in-the-moment consumption and experience of other palatable food and drink rewards. In Experiment 1, we demonstrate that reward uncertainty can increase consumption of commercial alcoholic drinks and energy-dense savory snacks. In Experiment 2, we show that reward uncertainty is unlikely to promote consumption through gross increases in impulsivity (expressed as higher discounting rates) or risk tolerance (expressed as lower probability discounting rates). In Experiment 3, we find that reward uncertainty intensifies the taste of, and hedonic responses to, sucrose solutions in a concentration-dependent manner among individuals with heightened preferences for sweet tastes. Finally, in Experiment 4, we replicate and extend these findings by showing that reward uncertainty intensifies the taste of palatable foods and drinks in ways that are independent of individuals' discounting rates, motor control, reflection impulsivity, and momentary happiness but are strongly moderated by recent depressive symptoms. These data suggest a working hypothesis that (incidental) reward uncertainty, as a state of not knowing, operates as a mood-dependent "taste intensifier" of palatable food and drink rewards, possibly sustaining reward seeking and consumption. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Reward*
  • Taste*
  • Uncertainty