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More PsychNotes: Physical Health

June 13, 2017       

Motivating Health Behaviors by Anticipating Regret
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory. Albert Schweitzer
Although most people know what is healthy behavior and what is not, one of the enigmas of health psychology is how to motivate people to engage in more healthy behavior. Unfortunately, unhealthy behaviors are too attractive: overeating, drinking, smoking, avoiding routine health care, speeding while driving, or sitting around the pool rather than exercising, to name a few.

A recent examination of the research shows that having people imagine how much regret they might feel can help motivate them to engage in more healthy behaviors (Brewer, 2016). Unfortunately, this method has a limit in that it is more likely to help with increasing protective behaviors than with decreasing unhealthy behaviors. For example, it may be easier for a person to use the anticipation of regret to increase physical activity than to decrease alcohol consumption.

One reason for this difference may be that most unhealthy behaviors are known to go against medical advice so a person is more likely to engage in self-blame. You would think that when a person feels bad about something it is likely to decrease the behavior, but frequently the opposite is true. Feeling self-blame triggers defense mechanisms such as minimizing or denial to protect the self-concept. In such circumstances, imagining regret for a behavior is less powerful.

Ways to motivate using anticipated regret

1) Emphasize consequences of inaction. Focus on how the regret feels if you suffer the consequences for not taking some action: “I would feel awful if I could have gotten a cancer screening to catch a problem when it was still treatable.”

2) Make outcomes more immediate. It is more difficult to perceive regret for outcomes that are too far into the future. Instead, focus on outcomes that have more immediate impact. For example, eating healthy can have long-term benefits but you may be more motivated by noticing how you feel more energetic or don't have stomach upset when you eat healthy.

3) Ask anticipated regret questions. Examine what it might feel like to have regret: “Will I feel bad if I could have prevented a problem?” or “What will I feel like if I ignore how this affects my health?” Too often, people don't ask these questions upfront, yet when they suffer consequences they could have foreseen they feel awful.

4) Write down intentions. Based upon the answers to your self-reflection about regret, write down your intentions for behavior. People are often able to ignore or forget intentions, and thus, they are less likely to follow through. However, when you write down what you have reflected upon you are more likely to engage in healthier behaviors.

Brewer, N.T., DeFrank, J.T. and Gilkey, M.B. (2016). Anticipated Regret and Health Behavior: A Meta-Analysis. Health Psychology, 35, 1264–1275. DOI: 10.1037/hea0000294

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