Focusing on the Future Improves Your Eating Habits Today

This study is a group of four experiments that investigates the relationship of positive emotions with self-control in terms of preventing yourself from consuming snacks. Results from these four experiments showed that positive emotions geared toward a hopeful future caused less consumption of unhealthy foods by the study participants, compared to those who focused on present or previous happiness, termed as “pride happiness.” These results show that fear of the future or hopelessness had a negative effect in restraining a person in unhealthy indulgence.

There is an alarming increase in rates of obesity in the United States and other developed countries. Studies have focused on the effect of specific positive and negative emotions in influencing healthy and unhealthy eating behavior and life style choices. For example, it is often found that negative feelings of a depressed mood may trigger consumption of unhealthy snacks. The connection between the mood and choices that involve food consumption is not clear. This study analyzed the positive emotions that arose from a good future prospect and from a raving review of previous or present achievements and negative emotions from fear of a bleak future. The authors believe that by understanding the exact effects of various types of positive and negative feelings would lead to better plans for curbing the consumption of unhealthy foods.

* For the first study, 59 college students were selected. They were asked to write about three incidents that made them very happy (hopeful) and to describe one of these incidents. They were given the choice to consume either unhealthy snack bars or raisins while performing the task.
* For the second study, 191 college students were selected. They were given stories to read that evoked such emotions as hopefulness, happiness, pride or neutral feelings. The participants then responded to an emotion-manipulation check and a questionnaire regarding what snacks they would like to receive.
* For the third study, 239 participants were selected. They were given online stories that evoked such emotions as pride, hopefulness, happiness, or neutral feelings. They were then given a questionnaire regarding which snack they would like to have just after the test.
* For the fourth study, 326 subjects were given stories that evoked positive and negative emotions followed by a questionnaire regarding choice of food they’d like at that moment.

Key Findings
* Study 1 showed the beneficial effects of being hopeful about the future when compared to just being happy. Hopefulness made the participants choose fewer snacks of unhealthy food and eat more raisins.
* Study 2 revealed that focusing on the past achievements, which was also a positive emotion, failed to prevent a participant from indulging in unhealthy snacks.
* Study 3 showed that self-control in preventing the selection of unhealthy food was more for anticipation of an achievement in the future, as compared with the past hopefulness of the participants for a better future.
* Study 4 showed that compared to future hopefulness, future hopelessness or fear were not capable of restraining a participant from making unhealthy food choices.

Next steps/Shortcomings
Authors agree that in this series of studies they have focused on momentary or incidental food choice decisions. They suggest further studies that should investigate the inherent or integral decision making and its relation to food choices. For example, a person may not be optimistic about his/her future weight loss or maintenance and a momentary positive feeling will not stop them from making an unhealthy food choice.

This study has important implications in food-related consumer behavior. Authors find that while positive emotions do have a restraining effect when it comes to consumption of an unhealthy snack, only the emotion of future-focused hopefulness can be beneficial. When the happiness or positive feeling is because of the past achievements or pride, the beneficial effect is decreased. The impact of future hopelessness and negative feelings are also not helpful in preventing a bad food choice. This study is an important addition to the knowledge that connects positive emotions and cognition that leads to changes in consumer behavior. Although further studies need to assess the exact role of the integral decision making process and its connection with future or temporal goal-directed behavior, this study shows that people who have positive emotions can forgo short-term rewards to achieve long-term goals, if they are motivated suitably.

For More Information:
Helpful Hopefulness: The Effect of Future Positive Emotions on Consumption
Publication Journal: Journal of Consumer Research Inc., March 2011
By Karen Page Winterich; Kelly Haws
From the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA; Texas A&M University, College Station, TX

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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