By Jorge Ruiz, MD; and Allen D. Andrade, MD
Jorge Ruiz, MD, is the director of the Laboratory of E-learning and Multimedia Research and the associate director for Education and Evaluation. Allen D. Andrade, MD, is the associate director of the Laboratory of E-learning and Multimedia Research and GRECC Investigator, and both are at the Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center (GRECC), Bruce W. Carter Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Miami, Florida.
Adherence to self-management behaviors is linked to better health care outcomes in patients with chronic illness. Despite the benefits, however, nonadherence remains a significant problem. (Click here for the link to the article by Dr. Ruiz and Dr. Andrade: http://www.fedprac.com/Article.aspx?ArticleId=hrHiCg0q/fw=.) Though interventions to improve adherence to self-management behaviors have shown some success, in most cases these interventions are resource intensive and may not be available to most patients. Computer-based interventions may constitute cost-effective ways to improve access to evidence-based self-management. We have seen that avatars (digital representations of people) are widely used in Internet environments to facilitate social interactions and communication. Compared with a computer program without avatars, one with an avatar could establish a relationship with a participant that is more engaging, persuasive, and long-term.
In a previous posting, we saw experimental evidence showing that avatars resembling individuals can foster significant lifestyle changes. More recent evidence from behavioral economics suggests that avatars resembling future selves may be even more effective in changing behaviors.1 The “future self-continuity” hypothesis states that individuals that do not feel connected to their future selves are less likely to save money for the future. This hypothesis has received support from a series of experiments showing that individuals that are connected to their future selves forgo short-term rewards in favor of future rewards more often than those that are less connected.
There is also neuroscientific evidence from functional MRI that individuals showing future self-activation in the anterior cingulate cortex were more likely to save for the future. In the field of virtual reality, college undergraduates exposed to aged-morphed avatar versions of their future selves allocated more money for retirement. In the field of health care, would seeing an older avatar version of yourself virtually modeling healthy lifestyles contribute to change in your behavior? Stay tuned. Studies are forthcoming.
1. Hershfield, HE, Goldstein, DG, Sharpe, WF, et al. Increasing saving behavior through age-progressed renderings of the future self. Journal of Marketing Research. 2011;48:S23-S37.