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Leonard H. Epstein, PhD

Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, led research that shows overweight and obese women are equally capable of the impulse control that lean women exhibit.

Study Could Lead to Impulse Control Treatments for Weight Loss

Published October 8, 2013

A University at Buffalo study has found that behavioral interventions that improve delay of gratification can work just as well with overweight and obese women as with lean women.

“We can teach people how to reduce delay discounting, where they learn how to mentally simulate the future in order to moderate present behavior.”
Leonard H. Epstein, PhD
SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and chief of behavioral medicine

The results are important for designing interventions to reduce impulsive decision making in women who need to lose weight, says senior author Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and chief of behavioral medicine.

Visualizing Future May Aid Weight Loss

The prospection study, involving mentally simulating future events, is “welcome news” for people who have struggled to lose weight, says Epstein.

“It shows that when people are taught to imagine, or simulate the future, they can improve their ability to delay gratification.”

He notes that many people have difficulty resisting the impulse for immediate gratification. Instead, they engage in “delay discounting,” in which they discount future rewards in favor of smaller, immediate rewards.

This tendency is associated with greater consumption of highly caloric, ready-to-eat foods.

It has been speculated that if people could modify delay discounting, they would be more successful at losing weight.

“Now we have developed a treatment for this,” says Epstein. “We can teach people how to reduce delay discounting, where they learn how to mentally simulate the future in order to moderate present behavior.”

Testing Future Thinking and Delay Discounting

The study involved 24 lean women and 24 overweight and obese women. The researchers evaluated how much delay discounting they engaged in through a hypothetical test that promised monetary rewards now or in the future.

While the future amount remained at $100, the amount available immediately decreased during each test, falling to $1.

Participants were asked to think about future events. For instance, when choosing between $95 now and $100 in six months, they were instructed to think about the most vivid event in their lives six months from now, such as a birthday party.

A control group was instructed to think about vivid scenes from a Pinocchio story they had read.

Women who engaged in future thinking were able to reduce delay discounting. Moreover, the episodic future thinking worked equally well in overweight and obese women as it did in lean women.

Behavioral assessments determined differences in paticipants’ levels of motivation, perspectives on time, and degree to which they sought out fun and responded to rewards.

Building on Previous Studies, Contradicting Others

In another recent study, Epstein and his colleagues demonstrated that overweight and obese women ate less and reduced their inclination to engage in delay discounting when they imagined themselves in enjoyable future scenarios.

The paper, “The Future Is Now: Reducing Impulsivity and Energy Intake Using Episodic Future Thinking,” has been published in Psychological Science.

This research is important because several previous studies have shown that overweight and obese women are more impulsive, says Epstein.

Prior studies have concluded that overweight and obese people have a harder time delaying gratification, so they are more likely to forego a healthy body later in favor of eating more calorie-dense foods now.

Through Stanford University experiments in the 1960s and 1970s — among the most well known delay-of-gratification research — children were given an opportunity to eat either a single snack immediately or multiple snacks after waiting.

Follow-up studies found that in general, those who were able to wait were more responsible and successful as adults.

Research Published in Appetite

The most recent research, “The Future is Now: Comparing the Effect of Episodic Future Thinking on Impulsivity in Lean and Obese Individuals,” has been published in the journal Appetite.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Epstein’s co-authors on both papers are: