Long-Term Healthy Behaviors?

For those of you in the business of getting others to adopt healthy behaviors, such as exercising more, here’s an interesting new study on how one’s future self-image influences one’s behavior and decisions today.

Take-home message: influence how people see themselves in the future, and they may adopt healthy behaviors today.

As the investigators point out [1], many challenges in public health boil down to people making decisions that are gratifying short-term, but harmful long-term. Instant gratification is prioritized over future benefits. While this problem is not unique to healthcare, healthy behavior adoption outcomes are often harder to quantify and may take longer to realize than other types of decisions, such as financial ones (e.g., saving money). It is hard to know the negative consequences of skipping exercise one day, or feel the impact of indulging on a bag of chips other than feeling full. Indeed, it is not the one gratifying instance that is problematic, but the continuous, chronic skipping of healthy behaviors that adds up to bad outcomes.

How to Change the Short-Term to Improve Future Healthy Behaviors?

Because isolated acts have limited impact on long-term health, they are easily dismissed – a phenomenon known as temporal discounting. It explains why it is not very effective in healthcare to have people focus on their current actions and how those might influence their future. How to change people’s way, then?

This study turned things around and had people focus on the future instead. It successfully applied a concept known as future self-continuity. This has been linked to a number of beneficial outcomes other than health, such as financial and moral decisions (e.g., planning for retirement or resisting a rewarding, but dubious course of action). Future self-continuity refers to the sense of similarity or connection that one feels between one’s current and future self, which varies across people. In the study, people who felt more connected to their future self reported better mental and physical health. The idea being that only when the two selves overlap, are people willing to make sacrifices today to reward a distant self through healthy behaviors.

Future Behaviors Determined by Connection to Self

By linking the two selves then, isolated health-improving acts may be encouraged, which is exactly what the study found next.

Participants connection to their distant selves was manipulated by having them write a letter to their future self three months away (the control group) or 20 years (the experimental group). So although both groups were directed to think about selves that existed in the future, only the latter considered a very distant self. Of interest was if, and how, this would influence subsequent healthy behaviors, as measured by the number of minutes people exercised in subsequent days. Amazingly, the manipulation had a clear effect: people writing to their distant selves were not only more likely to exercise (43%) but also exercised more than people writing to their near selves.

Strikingly, the groups differed in no other way. All that differed was the manipulation of writing a letter to one’s future self.

Does that mean we should all start writing a letter? Maybe. At the very least we could start shifting focus from the present to future. Ask patients how they see themselves 20 years from now, who they will be, and what is important to them. Simple questions such as these may have a subtle yet profound effect.

Chantal Kerssens understands how people think, make decisions, and behave. And she knows how people interact with new health technologies. Contact Chantal for all of your digital health application needs. 

[1] Rutchick AM, Reyes MO, Pleskus LN, Slepian ML, Hershfield HE (2018). Future Self-Continuity Is Associated With Improved Health and Increases Exercise Behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1): 72-80.

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