Visualizing the future may aid weight loss in obesity: U of Buffalo Study

Face aging to age 72 showing obesity

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Recently, a University of Buffalo study showed that behavioral interventions that improve delay of gratification can work just as well with overweight and obese women as with lean women.  A report on the study on the UofBuffalo's website clearly says that the results are important for designing interventions to reduce impulsive decision making in women who need to lose weight, according to senior author Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and chief of behavioral medicine.

The prospection study, involving mentally simulating future events, is “welcome news” for people who have struggled to lose weight, says Epstein.  “It shows that when people are taught to imagine, or simulate the future, they can improve their ability to delay gratification.”   He notes that many people have difficulty resisting the impulse for immediate gratification. Instead, they engage in “delay discounting,” in which they discount future rewards in favor of smaller, immediate rewards.

It has been speculated that if people could modify delay discounting, they would be more successful at losing weight.    Now we have developed a treatment for this,” says Epstein. “We can teach people how to reduce delay discounting, where they learn how to mentally simulate the future in order to moderate present behavior.”

In another recent study, Epstein and his colleagues demonstrated that overweight and obese women ate less and reduced their inclination to engage in delay discounting when they imagined themselves in enjoyable future scenarios.   The paper, “The Future Is Now: Reducing Impulsivity and Energy Intake Using Episodic Future Thinking,” has been published in Psychological Science.  This research is important because several previous studies have shown that overweight and obese women are more impulsive, says Epstein.

Prior studies have concluded that overweight and obese people have a harder time delaying gratification, so they are more likely to forego a healthy body later in favor of eating more calorie-dense foods now.

Through Stanford University experiments in the 1960s and 1970s — among the most well known delay-of-gratification research — children were given an opportunity to eat either a single snack immediately or multiple snacks after waiting.

Follow-up studies found that in general, those who were able to wait were more responsible and successful as adults.

The most recent research, “The Future is Now: Comparing the Effect of Episodic Future Thinking on Impulsivity in Lean and Obese Individuals,” has been published in the journal Appetite.  The study was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Epstein’s co-authors on both papers are:

  • First author Tinuke Oluyomi Daniel, a doctoral student in the Department of Pediatrics and the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior in the School of Public Health and Health Professions
  • Christina M. Stanton, a research assistant