PhD:  Using insights into time preference and present bias to develop an intervention to improve adherence to exercise

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Exercise is a potential ‘miracle cure’ for many health conditions. However adherence to exercise proves difficult for many people.

Insights from behavioural economics and psychology can help improve the understanding of exercise behaviour to inform the development of effective interventions. Despite a correlative association between time preference (how present- or future-oriented an individual is), present bias (the enhanced significance an individual attaches to immediate outcomes) and a range of health behaviours including exercise, time preference and present bias have not, to date, been taken into account when designing interventions to enhance uptake of exercise.

The overall aim of the PhD is to develop and test an interactive web-based tool to improve an individual’s adherence to exercise by taking into account that individual’s time preference rate and present bias. The tool draws on a study carried out by Hall and Fong in 2003 who showed that a ‘time perspective intervention’ (which helped the user explicitly make the connection between their current behaviour and their future health status) when used in Canada improved adherence to exercise. It also draws on the existing evidence around commitment contracts such as (where money is deposited as a commitment to a behaviour change) to overcome present bias. The main research questions are:

  1. Does a ‘time preference’ intervention improve adherence to exercise?
  2. Does adding a commitment contract improve adherence to exercise?
  3. Does the effectiveness of these interventions depend on an individuals’ time preference rate and present bias?

PhD Student: Uma Thomas

Supervisors: Marjon van der Pol (HERU); Julia Allan (Health Psychology, University of Aberdeen)


Thomas, U., Pol, M. van der and Allan, J. (2017) 'Demand for physical activity and commitment contracts: the role of time preference, present bias and sophistication', Health Economists' Study Group (HESG) Winter Conference, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, 4-6 February 2017.

Thomas, U., Pol, M. van der and Allan, J. (2017) 'Time preference and present bias: increasing physical activity', Institute of Applied Health Sciences (IAHS) Postgraduate Research Symposium, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, 23 June 2017.

Thomas, U.Pol, M. van der and Allan, J. (2020) 'An RCT of a time preference intervention to increase physical activity', European Health Economics Association (EuHEA) Student-Supervisor and Early Career Researcher Conference Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands [Online], 3-4 September 2020.

Thomas, U.Pol, M. van der and Allan, J. (2020) 'An rct of a time preference intervention to increase physical activity', PhD Conference in Behavioural Science, Geary Institute for Public Policy, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland [Online], 10 December 2020.