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Future Orientation: The Key to Healthy Eating and Exercise

October 6, 2012

By Jeff Joireman

It’s 6 am on January 1st. The alarm clock goes off, rousing you from your sleep. You roll over, hit the snooze, and contemplate the first day of your new life. This is the year you will start exercising and eating right. This is the year you will lose a few pounds. This is the year you will get in the best shape ever. But even as your resolutions play on a continual loop in your head, you turn off the alarm, pull up the covers, and fall back into a blissful slumber. A few hours later, you wake up and think, “Ok, tomorrow I will start the first day of my new life.” The next morning comes. The alarm clock goes off at 6 am. You hit the snooze and think, “You know, this bed is pretty comfy…”

If the scenario just described sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Exercise and healthy eating are almost always near the top of people’s New Year’s resolutions. We know we should exercise and eat healthy. The problem is we don’t, at least as much as we should, and we will eventually pay the price for our unhealthy lifestyles. The bill may not come due for some time, but it will come.

Because exercise and health require significant investments now in the hopes of long-term gains they are often viewed as temporal dilemmas. Two of the most common temporal dilemmas include temporal traps and temporal fences. In temporal traps, we are tempted to engage in a behavior that produces short-term rewards but long-term negative consequences (e.g., eating a big burger, fries and a shake is tasty in the here and now, but regularly engaging in unhealthy eating can lead to long-term health problems).  In temporal fences, we are not inclined to engage in a behavior that results in short-term costs but would lead to long-term benefits (e.g., waking early to exercise may seem inconvenient, but regular exercise could lead to long-term benefits).

So how can people escape from these temporal dilemmas?  Viewing exercise and healthy eating as temporal dilemmas suggests that people should be more likely to engage in these behaviors when they are more concerned with the future consequences of their actions, less concerned with the immediate consequences of their actions, or both.

To test this idea, in a recent series of studies, my colleagues and I (Joireman, Shaffer, Ballliet, & Strathman, 2012) asked college students to complete a personality scale called the “consideration of future consequences scale”(Strathman, Gleicher, Boninger, & Edwards, 1994). Using this scale, we calculated how concerned people were with the future consequences of their actions (e.g., “When I make a decision, I think about how it will affect me in the future”), and how concerned they were with immediate consequences (e.g., “I only act to satisfy immediate concerns, figuring the future will take care of itself.”). We then measured respondents’ attitudes toward, and intentions to engage in, exercise and healthy eating. Results showed that people who scored high on the ‘concern with future consequences’ scale were more likely to exercise and eat healthy, and that concern with immediate consequences was a relatively weak predictor of exercise and healthy eating outcomes.

In addition to linking future orientation with exercise and healthy eating, we were also interested in understanding why future-oriented people exercise and eat healthy. Drawing on regulatory focus theory (Higgins, 1997; Higgins et al., 2001), we predicted that future-oriented people exercise and eat healthy because they approach goals from a promotion orientation (as opposed to a prevention orientation). People who adopt a promotion orientation eagerly and optimistically pursue gains  (e.g., “I frequently imagine how I will achieve my hopes and aspirations”), whereas those who adopt a prevention orientation are concerned with avoiding losses (e.g., “In general, I am focused on preventing negative events in my life”; see Lockwood, Jordan & Kunda, 2002). Results showed that future-oriented people scored high on promotion orientation, and promotion orientation, in turn, predicted more favorable exercise and healthy eating attitudes which, in turn, predicted stronger intentions to exercise and eat healthy.

The results of our studies suggest that people are more likely to exercise and eat healthy when they develop a future-oriented outlook and focus on eagerly pursuing positive outcomes associated with an ideal self. That said, many people are, by nature, more present-oriented. Finding strategies to motivate present-oriented people to exercise and eat healthy is also vitally important. One strategy that has proven effective is to help present-oriented people understand the immediate benefits associated with health behaviors (e.g., Orbell & Hagger, 2006). Thus, for the more present-oriented among us, it may be most effective to stress how exercise and healthy eating can lead to immediate reductions in stress, and corresponding increases in energy and feelings of well-being.


Author information:  Dr. Jeff Joireman is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Washington State University. The majority of his current research focuses on how temporal concerns (e.g., individual differences in consideration of future consequences) predict financial decision-making (e.g., impulsive buying and use of credit cards) and consumer behaviors related to the environment. He is also interested in understanding factors that predict cooperation in social dilemmas (www.socialdilemma.com) and people’s support for charitable organizations.

Web Link for the Published Reportat Sage Publications:   Joireman, J., Shaffer, M., Balliet, D., & STrathman, A. (2012). Promotion orientation explains why future-oriented people exercise and eat healthy: Evidence from the two-factor consideration of future consequences 14 scale. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(10), 1272–1287. doi: 10.1177/0146167212449362


References

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.52.12.1280

Higgins, E. T., Friedman, R. S., Harlow, R. E., Idson, L. C., Ayduk, O. N., & Taylor, A. (2001). Achievement orientations from subjective histories of success: Promotion pride versus prevention pride. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31, 3-23. doi:10.1002/ejsp.27

Joireman, J., Shaffer, M., Balliet, D., & STrathman, A. (2012). Promotion orientation explains why future-oriented people exercise and eat healthy: Evidence from the two-factor consideration of future consequences 14 scale. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(10), 1272–1287. doi: 10.1177/0146167212449362

Lockwood, P., Jordan, C. H., & Kunda, Z. (2002). Motivation by positive or negative role models: Regulatory focus determines who will best inspire us. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 854-864. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.4.854

Orbell, S., & Hagger, M. (2006). Temporal framing and the decision to take part in type 2 diabetes screening: Effects of individual differences in consideration of future consequences. Health Psychology, 25, 537-548. doi:10.1037/0278-6133.25.4.537

Strathman, A., Gleicher, F., Boninger, D. S., & Edwards, C. S. (1994). The consideration of future consequences: Weighing immediate and distant outcomes of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 742-752. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.66.4.74214.00

Joireman, J., Shaffer, M., Balliet, D., & Strathman, A. (2012). Promotion orientation explains why future-oriented people exercise and eat healthy: Evidence from the two-factor consideration of future consequences 14 scale. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(10), 1272–1287. doi: 10.1177/0146167212449362

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 6, 2012 12:10 pm

    I agree with that thinking; if we look for a better, and healthier, future, then we will be more motivated to keep that up:)

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