Research: To Resist Temptation, Think Short-Term

By: Sarah Magnus-Sharpe
Hand reaching for brownie dessert

We’ve all experienced this familiar sensation: it’s the homestretch of a long day at the office, and tasty-but-unhealthy snacks in the breakroom are calling to us. How can we best help ourselves stick to our goals and avoid unhealthy choices?

Conventional wisdom and years of research suggest that the best way to resist unhealthy choices is to think about long-term consequences of indulging. For example, high sugar consumption may lead to diabetes and obesity, heavily processed fast foods can lead to hypertension and heart disease, and alcohol can lead to brain and liver damage. Considering these long-term consequences should help us avoid indulging and stick more closely to our goals. However, research tells us people are good at ignoring these appeals to distant outcomes, possibly rendering this type of strategy less effective.

New research from Cornell SC Johnson College of Business shows a surprisingly effective alternative to resisting unhealthy choices by focusing on the short-term consequences of unhealthy behavior. The paper “Undermining Desire: Reducing Unhealthy Choices by Highlighting Short-term (vs. Long-Term) Costs,” by Kaitlin Woolley, associate professor at the Samuel Curtis Johnson School of Management, and her co-author Paul Stillman, post-doctoral at Yale University, published in the Journal of Consumer Research. In seven studies with over 4,000 participants, they learned that highlighting short-term costs of unhealthy eating is more effective at helping people avoid indulging than highlighting long-term costs.

In an initial demonstration of this effect, they invited 217 Cornell University students to view one of two public service announcements detailing reasons to avoid energy drinks. One message emphasized long-term costs of energy drink consumption, such as diabetes and obesity, whereas the other emphasized short-term costs, such as anxiety and a sugar/caffeine crash. As a thank you for taking the study, students then had a choice between two gift options: they could either receive an energy drink from Starbucks or a reusable cloth facemask from the Cornell Store (the study was conducted when mask-mandates were in place on campus). Students who read about the short-term costs were 25% less likely to choose the energy drink than those who read about the long-term costs.

In another study, 450 participants read about either the short-term costs of eating sugar, the long-term costs of eating sugar, or did not read about any costs of consuming sugar. As a thank you for taking the study, all participants were then given a choice between a delivery of cookies or a tote bag from L.L. Bean. As before, those who read about the short-term costs were 30% less likely to choose the cookies than those who read about the long-term costs, and 45% less likely than those who did not read about any costs. In other studies, they found that this strategy of focusing on short-term costs also reduced interest in drinking alcohol and eating fast food.

Why are Short-term Costs More Effective than Long-term Costs?

To answer this question, they dug into the psychology underlying the effect. They found that one reason short-term costs are effective is that they lead people to believe that indulging will be less enjoyable. In one study testing this, they invited 750 participants to imagine eating donuts that would cause indigestion either immediately or the next day. In line with their previous studies, participants were less interested in eating donuts when indigestion would occur immediately. Importantly, though, they also said that they would enjoy eating donuts less compared to those for whom indigestion would occur the next day. In other words, considering short-term costs made unhealthy foods less attractive than considering long-term costs, such that people were less interested in indulging in the first place.

A New Approach for Avoiding Temptation

Their findings offer a new strategy people can use to stick with their goals and avoid unhealthy choices: thinking about the short-term costs. Using a conservative approach, they estimate that their intervention has the potential to decrease unhealthy behaviors by 23%, offering meaningful reductions in disease and mortality.

People often see the world in terms of stark black-and-white trade-offs. Unhealthy behavior is no different: People overwhelmingly view unhealthy consumption as a trade-off between short-term and long-term gratification. This good-now/bad-later conceptualization obscures the many consequences that unhealthy behaviors can carry in the short-term. By tailoring interventions that harness peoples’ present-focused nature – rather than fight against it – their results show that people can better avoid temptation.