Despite all the evidence of benefit, despite all the dire warnings of ill health, despite all the promises, resolutions, and motivational slogans, the truth is this: Americans struggle to eat a healthy diet and participate in regular physical activity. For example, according to the CDC, in 2008 approximately 50% of all Americans did not meet the recommended physical activity guidelines (150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise/week), and almost 30% of Americans reported NO leisure-time physical activity. Yet, despite these bleak statistics, it seems that we all believe the best of ourselves. We are suprisingly optimistic that every time we initiate a diet and/or exercise plan, we will succeed. Why is this?
A recent article in the New York Times (“Stop Trusting Yourself” by psychology professor David DeSteno), presents an intriguing explanation for why we may be such poor judges of our own character. DeSteno points out that we are hesitant to trust others because it leaves us vulnerable, engaged in a contract with another individual who may ultimately let us down. This “leads many people to prefer self-reliance, an arrangement that seems more secure because the only person you have to count on is yourself.” But, as DeSteno further explains, trusting yourself actually does involve two people: the present you and the future you. And this is where the trouble starts.
You see, the future self is actually quite unreliable. For one, we are unable to predict how much we’ll want (or be tempted by) something in the future, because our predictions of the future are biased by our current feelings. So while it’s easy to SAY we won’t be prone to overeating or skipping exercise, our ability to predict those responses is influenced by our current feelings of fullness, motivation, energy and enthusiasm. In addition, we are also notoriously bad at predicting how much a future reward or object will mean to us, because our desire for these future rewards grows stronger as we grow closer to attaining them. This can work in both directions where diet and exercise are involved, but nonetheless makes it hard to predict what types of things will help vs. hinder our ability to make meaningful lifestyle changes.
You can see the problem, then. Despite a state of current frustration or motivation about our diet and exercise habits, we are likely to underestimate both our future struggles and the influence of rewards and objects important to us. This makes it incredibly difficult for one to trust the future self to achieve the goals of the present. While the solution isn’t straightforward, DeSteno suggests that anything that holds the future self more accountable (Phone apps, calendar appointments, a simple recognition of these cognitive biases) can contribute to making promises to ourselves that we can actually keep.