Will power. It’s a classic problem for people struggling to lose weight or eat healthier foods. A person’s capacity to delay an immediate reward for a greater reward in the future, i.e. a donut now or a leaner body in the future, is known as delayed gratification among social scientists.
Earlier research has suggested that people who are overweight and obese have difficulties delaying gratification, and are more likely to opt for higher-calorie foods now rather making better choices for a future health. But new research shows women can improve their impulse control and will power to make healthier choices, regardless of weight.
Researchers from the University of Buffalo found that obese and overweight women responded to behavioral interventions aimed at improving will power just as well as leaner women.
“This research is certainly welcome news for people who have struggled to lose weight, because it shows that when people are taught to imagine, or simulate the future, they can improve their ability to delay gratification,” explained obesity researcher, Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, who was the lead author on the study.
Many people struggle with the desire for instant gratification and perform something called delayed discounting. This occurs when a person discounts future rewards in order to experience less substantial yet more immediate rewards, Epstein pointed out in a press release. Researchers have suggested that reducing delayed discounting behavior might assist people with weight loss.
Dr. Epstein and his colleagues analyzed delayed discounting behaviors in 24 overweight/obese women and 24 lean women. To measure delayed gratification, the researchers had women take hypothetical tests that promised them either $100 in the future or a smaller amounts of money now. Often women decided to take a less money now instead of waiting. This exercise continued as the amount awarded now decreased incrementally, dropping to as low as $1.
Women then participated in a second set of tests similar to the first, only they were asked to imagine an enjoyable future event that would take place in six months when they would receive $100. Imagining these events, like birthday parties or vacations, enabled women to improve their will power.
The research adds to a study published earlier this year by Dr. Epstein which showed that similar strategies allowed overweight women to control their eating and reduce delayed discounting.
Other recent research showed that women were more successful in obtaining their weight loss goals when using digital avatars to visualize themselves making healthy decisions and exercising.
Oluyomi Daniel, T, Stanton CM, and Epstein L. The future is now. Comparing the effect of episodic future thinking on impulsivity in lean and obese individuals. Appetite 2013.