Academic Minute Podcast

Kaitlin Woolley, Cornell University – Highlighting Short-Term Costs Reduces Unhealthy Behavior

How do we stop our unhealthy behaviors?

Kaitlin Woolley, associate professor of marketing at the SC Johnson College of business at Cornell University, looks short-term to help us out.

Kaitlin Woolley is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University. She studies the psychological processes underlying consumer motivation and decision making to help people better achieve their goals.

Highlighting Short-Term Costs Reduces Unhealthy Behavior

As you wait in line at your local coffee shop, tempted by the enticing display of freshly baked pastries, how can you resist the urge to indulge and avoid buying a cinnamon roll or two?

One strategy involves thinking about long-term consequences of such indulgence. To better stick to your health goals, for example, you could think about how sugar consumption can lead to diabetes and obesity. Yet we know that people are good at ignoring long-term appeals like these, reducing the potential effectiveness of this approach.

In our research involving over 4,000 participants across seven experiments, a surprisingly effective alternative emerged: focusing on the short-term consequences of unhealthy behavior.

Instead of considering long-term consequences of eating sugar, think about how sugar leads to a blood sugar spike and crash, which can leave you feeling irritable and exhausted. Similarly, if you are trying to cut back on alcohol, instead of thinking about long-term consequences, you can consider how a few drinks can add up to a headache and worse sleep that night.

While short-term consequences are not as severe as long-term ones, our research finds that emphasizing short-term costs is more effective in deterring indulgence. The reason is that short-term costs lead people to believe that indulging will be less enjoyable. Suddenly, those cinnamon rolls seem less tasty when you think about how they can negatively affect you now, right after you eat them. In this way, considering short-term costs reduces the appeal of eating unhealthy foods, undermining the very reason people indulge in the first place.

Our findings introduce a new strategy for individuals striving to adhere to their goals and avoid unhealthy choices: thinking about the short-term costs. Acknowledging that unhealthy behaviors also often come with short-term costs, our intervention harnesses people’s present-focused nature to help them better avoid temptation.

Read More:
[Oxford Academic] – Undermining Desire: Reducing Unhealthy Choices by Highlighting Short-Term (vs. Long-Term) Costs
[The Conversation] – Focus on right now, not the distant future, to stay motivated and on track to your long-term health goals

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