We know how hard it is to change health behavior. Yet we spend our lives educating employees on the long term benefits of rational solutions, like eating healthier and exercising. Today’s guest, Dr. Shahram Heshmat studies how people make decisions over time and how we ignore future consequences.

Shahram starts by defining behavioral economics as the blending of economics and psychology. Behavioral economics blends insights of psychology and economics to provide a realistic view of human behavior.

We discuss the long term vs short term benefits of health changes. Shahram explains that we suffer from telescopic error or present bias with more weight placed on the present. There are systematic differences among people, some are future oriented and people are not equally patient.

He mentions the marshmallow experiment with 4 year olds and that cognitive capacity changes around 4 years old. People can be trained to be more future oriented.

Shahram explains that we can’t address a population or workforce the same way. One size doesn’t fit all because of these differences because people differ in how they’re motivated. Some are promotion oriented and want to change their life and others are motivated other ways. We need to get to know people and what motivates them.

With impulsivity or impulsive behavior, the person is very present oriented. Self efficacy and self confidence can help overcome procrastination. We can always procrastinate changing our health.

People have multiple selves with different points of view. This means we constantly change our minds. We have two different points of view –  impulsive vs reflective mind; thinking vs emotional mind or planner vs doer. The two minds or interests may not coordinate. We have both an Interest for ice cream and an interest to be healthy. Context will change someone’s behavior and our priorities change.

Shahram walks us through some motivational factors that increase impulsive behaviors:

  • Willpower is muscle and it gets exhausted. Diets fail at night because there’s no willpower left.
  • What the hell effect? Bias when you have a “forbidden” food then you just eat what you want.
  • Self license to indulge. This happens when there are special occasions or if you’ve done something great, you reward yourself.
  • Alcohol makes us present oriented and we tend not to care what we eat.
  • Self escapism
  • Projection bias – after a full meal, we tend to think we’ll never eat like that again…until we get hungry again.

We will be vulnerable and change our minds. This is important for us to know.

I ask Shahram what can we do as wellness professionals to apply these learnings. Self awareness is important. We can normalize these behaviors so people don’t feel alone or strange. These vulnerabilities happen to most people. We need to educate the impulsive mind instead of the rational mind.

Shahram has great parting thoughts. He recommends automating decision making in order to use less willpower. He walks us through his if/then strategy – when you face a situation or trigger, then do this. An example: If someone mistreats you, then you ignore that person. Making too many decisions exhausts willpower and can lead to impulsive behavior.

Links Mentioned:

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

Shahram’s Blog on Psychology Today

Ful bio:

Shahram Heshmat holds a PhD in Managerial Economics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), with a specialty in Health Economics. He is Associate Professor Emeritus, and Adjunct Professor of Public Health at the University of Illinois Springfield.

He specializes in the behavioral economics of Addiction & Self Control.He has taught Health Economics of Addiction for over 20 years. His recent books include Eating Behavior and Obesity: Behavioral Economics Strategies for Health Professionals. New York, NY: Springer (2011); Addiction: A Behavioral Economics Perspective to be published the Routledge/Psychology Press (2015). These books illustrate the applications of behavioral economic perspective to Addiction, Overeating, Self-Control, and Well-Being.

Behavioral economics blends insights of psychology and economics to provide a realistic view of human behavior. Behavioral economics presents a valuable organizing principle to understand when and how people make errors, and how people’s decision making can be improved. He regularly writes the Addiction blog for the Psychology Today.