Changing how people think and feel about Cancer Prevention Behaviours: Translating Neuroscience into Population Health

Unhealthy behaviours, such as overeating are associated with increased risk for developing cancer. The aim for this project is to examine the effect of positive affect, episodic future thinking, and their interaction on temporal discounting (TD), food demand and food choice. A greater understanding of how positive affect and future rewards influence food decisions will help improve other types of healthy decision-making to prevent cancer.

Cancer can be prevented by reducing cancer risk behaviours, like overeating, and increasing healthy behaviours, like healthy eating. The vast majority of individuals do not meet the recommended guidelines for a healthy diet. One contributing factor as to why individuals may not be meeting the recommended guidelines is that healthy behaviours tend to be more effortful and less pleasurable than competing unhealthy behaviours.

Health behaviours such as eating are regulated by two separate systems in the brain: the regulation network which includes brain regions associated with cognitive control and emotion regulation, and the reward network which includes brain regions associated with reward processing. Obese individuals have been shown to have overactive reward system. One way to potentially increase healthy behaviours, such as eating nutritionally balanced foods, is to enhance the rewarding effects of engaging in such behaviour: i.e. increasing the reward value and positive associations of healthy food therefore making those healthy food options more preferable than unhealthy ones.

In addition, overweight and obese individuals have been shown to have higher temporal discounting (TD), which means that they tend to favour moderate immediate gains over high value future gains (e.g. devaluing future weight loss in favour of the immediately rewarding taste of a donut). If individuals are able to lower their TD however, it may be easier for them to favour the long-term gain (e.g., healthy body weight) over the immediately rewarding unhealthy food choice. Positive episodic future thinking (i.e., the ability to project oneself into the future) has been shown to lower TD.

Our long-term goal is to understand how the interaction between positive affect and thinking about future rewards may influence healthy decision-making. The current pilot study is a proof of concept study aimed to empirically generate preliminary evidence of the unique and combined effects of positive affect and positive episodic future thinking interventions on TD indices and (un)healthy food choices.

To address our aim we will pursue the following specific objectives in a laboratory-based experimental study:

  1. Develop positive affect and episodic future thinking mental imagery stimuli that can function as a brief intervention that can be administered in the laboratory setting.
  2. Examine the effect of positive affect, episodic future thinking, and their interaction on TD.
  3. Examine the effect of positive affect, episodic future thinking, and their interaction on healthy food demand.
  4. Examine the effect of positive affect, episodic future thinking, and their interaction on healthy food choice.

Funding

Funder:  Cancer Research UK (C63941/A25647)
Start Date: August 2017
End Date: July 2018

Members

Internal Staff

External Staff

  • Sara M Levens, University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC)
  • Laura Martin, University of Kansas Medical Centre
  • Angelos Kassianos, University College London
  • Nina Cooperman, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Rutgers University
  • Austin Baldwin, Southern Methodist University
  • Elisa Trucco, Florida International University

Public Health and Society Research in the Department of Health Sciences