Thursday, March 6, 2014

What kinds of people take care of themselves?

A recent walk that I took through the streets of Austin was a lesson in the diversity of orientations that people take toward the future.  Passing by Lady Bird Lake downtown, there were a number of joggers, bikers, and walkers on the trail getting in their exercise.  On top of the Congress Avenue bridge, a few smokers were enjoying a cigarette and the view of the lake.  Nearby, a heavyset couple prepared to dig in to a large meal while seated in the outdoor patio of a steakhouse. 

Just on this brief walk, there was a clear cross-section of people who took different approaches to their long-term health.  The people exercising on the trail around the lake were engaged in activities that would benefit their long-term health. In contrast, the smokers and people have a large meal were doing something that felt good in the short-term, even if it had potential negative consequences in the long-run.

All else being equal, people typically prefer things that are enjoyable in the short-term to things that are beneficial in the long-term, but are less pleasant in the short-term.  That is why people continue to overeat and drink to excess even though it can be harmful in the long-run.  It is also why people may opt against healthy foods in the short-term and may opt out of regular exercise. 

The large number of people who were exercising around the lake does suggest that a number of people are willing to engage in healthy behaviors.  One thing that needs to be explained is why some people are willing to do what is best for them in the long-run while others are not.

Personality psychologists have found that there is a stable tendency for some people to be more concerned with the future consequences of their actions than others.  Indeed, there are two kinds of questions that you can ask people to assess their concern for the future.  One focuses on how much people care about what is going to happen to them in the future.  The other is the degree to which they are focused on the benefit they will get from an action right now. 

Of course, the fact that these questions predict how likely it is that someone will exercise or eat healthy food does not explain much by itself.  It just says that people who are generally concerned about the consequences of their actions for the future seem to share that concern across many aspects of their life.

A paper in the October, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Jeff Joireman, Monte Shaffer, Daniel Balliet, and Alan Strathman explored why this concern for the future influences people’s actions. 

They found that questions about people’s concern for the future predict people’s motivational outlook.  Specifically, Tory Higgins and his colleagues have distinguished between two broad motivational orientations.  A promotion focus leads people to concentrate on potential positive things in the world and on the person they would ideally like to be.  A prevention focus leads people to concentrate on potential negative things in the world and on their responsibilities. 

The researchers suggested that a focus on who people would like to be ideally might allow those people to think about their future selves more effectively than a focus on their responsibilities.  Thus, they proposed that people who express a concern for the future consequences of their actions might have a stronger promotion focus than those who tend not to be concerned about the future consequences of their actions.  These researchers also suggested that the degree to which people are focused on the present benefits of their actions should have no reliable relationship to people’s overall motivational orientation.

In two studies, groups of people filled out a scale designed to assess their concern for the future consequences of their actions.  They also measured the strength of people’s promotion and prevention focus.  Finally, they examined their attitude toward and intention to perform a healthy behavior.  In one study, that behavior was eating healthy foods, while in the other study it was exercising.

In both studies, the more that people were concerned with the consequences of their future actions, the more they tended to have a promotion focus.  This promotion focus then predicted their positive attitude toward the healthy behavior, which in turn predicted their intention to perform that behavior.  It would have been valuable to have some measure of whether people actually performed the healthy behavior, but that issue was not addressed in these studies.

Overall, these results suggest that there are people who tend to take care of themselves.  Those people are concerned about the future consequences of their actions.  That concern influences their motivational state.

There are still a number of factors that need to be explored, though, before it is clear how this research can help us take care of ourselves.  First, we need to know the true relationship between motivational state and concern for the future.  Does concern for the future cause people to take a promotion focus, or does it work the other way around?  Does viewing the world in terms of potential gains make you more concerned about the future?  Second, if you manipulate someone’s motivational state, will that really change how much they pursue activities with long-term rewards?  There are many ways to affect whether someone adopts a promotion mindset.  Would all of these methods get people to take better care of themselves?

Right now, these are tantalizing research results, but more work clearly needs to be done.