The science of BC

Nope. Not before christ. Although I bet the majority of interesting experiments happened in that time period. The Egyptians seemed to get away with so much…

This post is about the science of behavioural change.

Know about nutrition and healthy eating? Great!

Know about efficient exercise techniques that yield great results in record time? Super!

Know that secret which will enable you to start the dream business? Fantastic!

Got a friend who would benefit from all of those things but no matter how many times you tell them, it never seems to hit home? Ah. Yes. Most times.

The science of behaviour change is fascinating, and ultimately pivotal in helping others and ourselves make meaningful changes in our lives. We all know that it’s bad to smoke, or that we need better quality sleep, or that I need to improve my fashion sense. So what factors promote somebody to make changes? And similarly, what barriers are there? Professor Susan Michie at UCL studies the science of health behaviour change much in the way that biochemists and physicists study molecules and atoms.

Merely as an informative summary I thought it would be nice to share the list of 26 behaviour change techniques that Michie and Abraham published in 2008. No doubt Jim and I will end up referring to a whole host of these over the series of podcast episodes and blog posts, either directly or indirectly. So here goes (please bare it in mind that I might get carried away and do some ad-libbing):

  1. Provide information to the individual about the link between the behaviour and health benefit. This can be dependent on the individual, but consider the images on cigarette packages.
  2. Provide information on consequences. Much the same as number 1, except revolving around the negative outcomes.. Yes, perhaps the smoking example above wasn’t the best choice.
  3. Provide information about others approval. Everybody cares what other people will think about them right? We’re all happy for that person who is “looking well!”.
  4. Prompt intention formation. The wording here is very social science. Essentially they’re trying to describe how it is a good idea for the individual to have a general goal to change their behaviour soon, such as “I’m going to walk more steps every day starting from tomorrow.” Probably less powerful that more specific goal setting.
  5. Prompt barrier identification. Make hurdles part of the plan so that they don’t become an issue down the line! It might be the case that you’ve got to throw away the 24 Krispy Kreme doughnuts you’re currently hoarding in the fridge. [Editor note : There are 18 left]
  6. Provide general encouragement. You’re doing great. I need more of that in my life, I’m needy.
  7. Set graded tasks. Increase the difficulty over time, maximising perceived success rates will increase momentum.
  8. Provide instruction. Tell the person how to do whatever it is they are trying to do. Also tell the person to stop listening to the people that are making it more challenging!
  9. Model or demonstrate the behaviour. Perhaps write a blog post or record a podcast episode on how to do so…?
  10. Prompt specific goal setting. Be SMART (specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, timely)
  11. Prompt review of the goals. Reflect, are you being successful?
  12. Self-monitoring of the behaviour. This is why recording your diet is much better than following a random diet plan. Until you can self-monitor, you can’t be in control!
  13. Provide contingent rewards. Jim drinks a cold beer that is waiting specifically in the fridge every time he finishes an assignment. He also doesn’t drink. Understand that logic!
  14. Provide feedback on performance. Have a friend evaluate your progress, keep yourself accountable to somebody!
  15. Teach to use prompts or cues. Setting a time in the day (and hence an alarm) is a good way to make sure you get in the habit of carrying out a specific behaviour and don’t forget. Try it!
  16. Agree on a behavioural contract. Seems a bit serious. But heck fren, why not draw up a contract or unbreakable vow like Professor Snape? If you don’t save her son, you’ll die.
  17. Prompt practice. If somebody keeps telling you to practice (double unders, for example – CrossFit reference 1), you’re more likely to do it and get better at them.
  18. Use follow-up prompts. Gave yourself a year to meet a goal? Have everybody call you to make sure you did it.
  19. Provide opportunities for social comparison. This is why CrossFit (2) yields such high results. You get to see how much you suck compared to everybody else. And then you learn to suck less.
  20. Plan social support or social change. Having an accountability buddy works. Like when your co-host has drafted 4 blog posts and you frantically write one in a night to get one up on him. But seriously, find somebody with the same goal and work at it together!
  21. Prompt identification as a role model. I’d say this probably works well for parents of children who need to be on a diet or stop smoking.
  22. Prompt self-talk.
  23. Relapse prevention. Provide people with a plan for how to deal with old situations that might elicit past behaviours, like going out for a meal in a restaurant with friends.
  24. Stress management. Reduce anxiety and stress (with meditation?) and watch everything become much easier.
  25. Motivational interviewing. Get somebody to repeat a motivational mantra to themselves and others, which promotes success and the new positive mindset.
  26. Time management. A major barrier we all have is finding the time for a new behaviour. Sometimes, modifying current behaviour may be more successful as an initial strategy. Hence, diet over exercise in the majority of cases seems to be more efficacious in terms of fat loss.

Well. Hopefully there is some use in there. If not, it provides a pretty good framework of topics for myself and Jim to discuss on our show.

I leave you with the sad story of me being ill with the flu and Jim simply telling me to write a blog post and stop with the self-pity. He covered points 3, 4 and 9 there pretty well.

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