Learned overeating: Applying principles of Pavlovian conditioning to explain and treat overeating

Karolien van den Akker*, Ghislaine Schyns, Anita Jansen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)223-231
Number of pages9
JournalCurrent Addiction Reports
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018

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