Reframing Health Behavior: Change with Behavioral Economics

By Warren K. Bickel; Rudy E. Vuchinich | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Temporal Changes in the Value of Objects of Choice: Discounting, Behavior Patterns, and Health Behavior

Cathy A. Simpson Rudy E. Vuchinich Auburn University

People often behave paradoxically: They do things they later wish they had not done, and they fail to do things they later wish they had. This temporal inconsistency is readily apparent in health-related behavior. People resolve to quit or curtail behaviors with negative health consequences (e.g., smoking and other substance use, overeating, etc.), only to return to excessive consumption at some later time. Similarly, they resolve to initiate new patterns of behavior with positive health consequences (e.g., regular exercise, low-fat diets, etc.), only to fail quickly to adhere to their resolutions.

Preferences expressed in words and action at any time may be assumed to be an accurate reflection of current desires, but short- and long-term preferences often oppose each other. Simply put, preferences change over time. A temporally extended future, to which long-term preferences regarding health behavior typically relate (e.g., "I want to be in better physical condition," or "I want to drink less"), is temporally distant, abstract, and uncertain. Meanwhile, behaviors with negative health consequences typically relate to the tangible rewards of the temporally circumscribed present (e.g., "I don't want to exercise and miss that TV program," or "One more beer now isn't going to hurt me"). Both healthy and unhealthy behavior patterns involve a succession of many individual choices. According to verbal reports, most individuals prefer the long-term benefits of good health over the many smaller but immediate rewards with which healthy behavior patterns compete, such as lack of exercise, poor diet, or substance abuse. However, given temporal changes in the value of objects of choice, and the corre-

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