NurtureSG and the psychology of short-term gain
by Daniel Yap
SINGAPORE is engaging in a long-term war, with high stakes. It’s the war for our health and overall well-being, and for disease prevention which has long-run payoffs – better quality of life, reduced costs, lower risks. The details of NurtureSG, a Ministry of Health plan to instill healthy habits in our children, will be announced later this year, but any plan needs to consider potential obstacles.
The first thing standing in the way of healthier children is unhealthy adults. We need no reminding that children are most influenced not by what they are told by their parents and teachers to do, but by what they see their parents and teachers doing. Thus, any aim to change the health-wise behaviour of the next generation must take into account the behaviour of this generation.
It may be straightforward enough to try to drill healthy habits into our children, but how then can we incentivise adults, whose habits have already been formed and practiced for decades, to change? We would not want to train our children up a certain way only to have them slip back into an unhealthy adult lifestyle because they were following their parents’ footsteps.
Adults need to replace old habits by forming new ones, and new habits are formed by repetitive behaviour. Without long-term goals, such sustained change would be difficult.
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For starters, we need to address the psychology that defeats long-term goals: affective bias, risk discounting, and hyperbolic discounting.
Affective bias, that is, bias that is rooted in our emotions, causes us to hear only what we want to hear. For example, the strong emotion associated with comfort eating can cause us to put too much stock in a “reduced fat” label on an unhealthy snack…and there goes the diet.
Uncertainty about the goals we set is what leads to risk discounting, where we downplay the risky effects of our behaviour. If you didn’t know how much you needed to eat to lose weight, would you have chicken nasi briyani for dinner, and a large bag of potato chips at the movie afterwards? Probably. But if you knew you had to eat under 1700 calories a day to lose weight, then it would be immediately clear to you that the 900 calorie nasi bryani and the 1000 calorie bag of chips would completely wreck your goals, especially if you already had a typical 500 calorie breakfast and “diet” 400 calorie lunch.
Hyperbolic discounting is the cognitive bias that favours short-term gains – why someone would choose to get $50 now than $1,000 a year later. It is why diet plans fail, why savings plans fall through, why we won’t cut our carbon footprint even though we know we put the future in peril.
How can children and adults get past these roadblocks to a healthier life? First, the emotional appeal of a long-term healthy lifestyle needs to stay strong. We need constant reminders that this is good for our family, good for our children and good for our silver years. Strong campaigns and culture-building are key to achieving this.
Then, we need instant gratification for our efforts. This is the short-term counter to short-term temptations, and this has so far been the hardest to achieve on a national scale.
This is why people post their workouts and gym bods on social media – to soak up the likes and encouragement as fuel for the next workout. This is why wearables are effective, because they are a constant reminder on your wrist of whether you’ve covered your 20,000 steps today, or gotten enough sleep, or pushed your heart rate frequently enough this week.
Instant gratification is why we need incentive programmes like the national steps challenge, in-house corporate fitness or weight-loss competitions, or programmes for individuals like AIA Vitality to reward workouts with vouchers, send encouragement, form support groups, set reminders, and do anything necessary to keep our eyes on the short-term goal for as long as it takes to reach the long-term one.
We are all, in one way or another, attracted by short-term gain. And if healthy living isn’t attractive in the short-term, then unhealthy living will win out. And what happens in the short term determines who wins the long-term war for our well-being. If we lose the war for our own well-being, we’ll be putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of the G’s push to make our children healthier.
This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.
AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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