The computational form of craving is a selective multiplication of economic value

Anna B. Konova, Kenway Louie, Paul W. Glimcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Craving is thought to be a specific desire state that biases choice toward the desired object, be it chocolate or drugs. A vast majority of people report having experienced craving of some kind. In its pathological form craving contributes to health outcomes in addiction and obesity. Yet despite its ubiquity and clinical relevance we still lack a basic neurocomputational understanding of craving. Here, using an instantaneous measure of subjective valuation and selective cue exposure, we identify a behavioral signature of a food craving-like state and advance a computational framework for understanding how this state might transform valuation to bias choice. We find desire induced by exposure to a specific high-calorie, high-fat/sugar snack good is expressed in subjects’ momentary willingness to pay for this good. This effect is selective but not exclusive to the exposed good; rather, we find it generalizes to nonexposed goods in proportion to their subjective attribute similarity to the exposed ones. A second manipulation of reward size (number of snack units available for purchase) further suggested that a multiplicative gain mechanism supports the transformation of valuation during laboratory craving. These findings help explain how real-world food craving can result in behaviors inconsistent with preferences expressed in the absence of craving and open a path for the computational modeling of craving-like phenomena using a simple and repeatable experimental tool for assessing subjective states in economic terms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4122-4127
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number16
StatePublished - Apr 17 2018


  • Attribute similarity
  • Craving
  • Economic value
  • Multiplicative gain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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