Fighting Short-Term Temptation For Long-Term Gain
Maybe you want to live a healthier lifestyle, but you keep finding yourself back on the couch eating junk food. Maybe you want to save for the future, but you find you keep heading back to the stores.
Every day, people set healthy long-term goals only to see them derailed when they give in to short-term temptations. Dr. Anne Wilson, Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology, is studying why the “power” in “willpower” works for some of us and not for others.
Exercise, smoking, procrastination, financial planning, environmental conservation, safe sex: all of these have something in common—their short-term and long-term consequences are not equal. However, because they’re immediate, their short-term costs or benefits can loom larger in people’s minds than their longer-tern, and more significant, outcomes. As a result, their short-term effects influence our decisions more than they should from a rational perspective.
But Wilson believes that people may be more able to resist short-term temptations when their long-term goals seem tangible. She is investigating the link between “subjective temporal distance” (how far away individuals perceive future events to be), how people identify with their future selves, and people’s behaviour. In particular, she is looking at the decisions people make when they feel “close and connected” to their future selves, compared to when they see the future as remote.
Wilson will then design possible interventions to change how people connect with their future selves, and to encourage them to make better decisions. She intends to make her resulting techniques available to large numbers of people, focusing particularly on the most vulnerable populations.
The decisions each person makes, both poor (such as driving under the influence) and positive and future-focused (such as taking collective action for the greater good), affect more than just them. Wilson’s research could, therefore, have significant consequences for not only everyone who struggles to make what they probably already know is the right choice, but, as a result, may also help society as a whole.