Faced with dire warnings from her doctor about her cholesterol levels, and invigorated by the spirit of the new year, Megan decides to commit to a healthy diet. For the month of January she joins the Whole Living Action Plan and fills her larder full of raw almonds, sprouts, and complex grains. She does fabulously for the first week and feels confident that she is putting her health first and avoiding the risky complications of an unhealthy diet.
On Friday however, bad weather causes a terrible commute, she gets in a fight with her boyfriend at lunch, and her boss calls her out in front of her colleagues in an important meeting. Frustrated and sad, she goes home and vents her frustration on a pint of Ben & Jerry’s … with a side of onion rings.
Megan’s experience is not unusual. When people are in negative moods, they tend to abandon their goals and participate in risky behaviors (defined as behaviors that could lead to undesirable outcomes).
Research Suggests Setting “If-Then” Intentions May Keep You On Course
Results from a study led by Thomas Webb at the University of Sheffield and published in the British Journal of Social Psychology suggest that setting “implementation intentions” may mitigate the effect of negative moods on decisions to engage in risky behaviors. Essentially, implementation intentions (or, “If This Happens …Then I’ll Respond Like This” plans) require you to project yourself into the future and imagine how you will implement your goals and how you will respond to possible impediments to success.
We have discussed these If-Then intentions before on this blog in the context of sending yourself text messages reminding you of your commitment to exercise and in why imagining goal obstacles may be more effective than imagining an easy path to success.
What They Found
To investigate the potential power of “If-Then” intentions, participants were asked to solve anagrams that they were told were easy (which brought about a negative mood, since some of the anagrams were actually insolvable) or told were hard (no mood change).
The authors asked some participants to set If-Then intentions to offset their negative moods (e.g., If I am in a negative mood, then I will think only positive thoughts). All participants then rated their likeliness of engaging in various types of risky behaviors such as discussing a sensitive matter with a roommate or driving a car with mechanical problems.
As they expected, the researchers found that setting If-Then intentions protected participants from the usual increase in risky behaviors after negative moods.
In a second study, the researchers demonstrated that having participants think clearly about risk before making a decision to engage in a behavior (e.g., In this gambling task, what are my actual odds of winning?) ALSO protected them against the negative effects of mood on risk-taking behavior.
Summing It Up
In other words, perhaps if Megan had either planned ahead for how to deal with negative emotions (If I have a bad day, I’ll text my best friend and invite her over for a movie and fat-free popcorn) or how to focus on the possible effects of her risky diet (If I am craving fats and sweets, I’ll read over some of the pamphlets my doctor gave me about the long-term health effects of such a diet), perhaps she would have had better success sticking to the Action Plan.
If you have recently set New Year’s resolutions (perhaps in the form of a question, as I had suggested earlier, review them now.
For each one, anticipate the future obstacles you could run into. Sketch out a few possibilities of how you might either manage a negative mood or redirect your focus onto why you set the resolution in the first place.
How do YOU avoid abandoning your health goals when the stress sets in?
You can read more about this study over at the Research Digest Blog.
Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., is professor of psychology in affective science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. To learn more about her research, please visit http://bit.ly/sarahrose.