The Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) program used a systematic approach to improve our understanding of the underlying mechanisms that would drive behavior change. Unhealthful behaviors—such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, and a sedentary lifestyle—contribute to negative health outcomes and common diseases. Effective approaches to adopting and maintaining healthy behaviors remain few. Though some interventions may lead to changes in behavior in some people, scientists rarely know how or why they work. SOBC researchers used a scientific method to investigate how and why people adopt and sustain healthy behaviors. SOBC brought together scientists from various disciplines, spanning basic and translational science across different health-related behaviors, to explore how a focus on the mechanisms of behavior change in the development of behavior change interventions could reliably improve health outcomes.
Program Scientific Advances
The first Stage of the SOBC program sought to improve our understanding of basic mechanisms of human behavior change across a broad array of health-related behaviors and to use this knowledge to develop more effective behavioral interventions. Research funded during Stage 1 led to the identification of three broad classes of intervention targets that are highly relevant to understanding the mechanisms of behavior change: self-regulation, stress reactivity and stress resilience, and interpersonal and social processes.
The second stage of the program, the SOBC Research Network, began in fiscal year 2015 and built on knowledge gained from the first stage of the program. This network of SOBC researchers identified potential targets for behavior change interventions and demonstrated that these targets were promising as drivers of behavior change and adherence to medical regimens and health behaviors; measurable in multiple ways at the psychological, behavioral, social, biological levels; and relevant to various disease conditions like disrupted sleep, type 2 diabetes, and chronic pain. For example, SOBC researchers:
- Identified that targets such as emotion regulation and self-awareness cognition were linked to obesity and depression, and that these targets were likely malleable through evidence-based therapies like problem-solving therapy and lifestyle balance.
- Provided early evidence that mindfulness-based training can significantly reduce blood pressure. Participants who completed an eight-week mindfulness-based program focused on behaviors that contribute to high-blood pressure all showed overall improvements in several determinants of blood pressure, including those who weren’t following the American Heart Association guidelines.
- Demonstrated that delay discounting is related to deteriorating glycemic control over time, and by implication, impacts the transition from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes; supporting the hypothesis that delay discounting serves as a target to be engaged and manipulated to reduce variability in behavior.
- Found that engaging the self-regulatory targets of perseverance and emotion regulation produces a desired change in medical regimen adherence and in health behavior.
Other Contributions to the Research Field
The SOBC Program’s emphasis on the importance of basic-to-applied translation, use-inspired basic research, and its focus on a systematic approach to understanding mechanisms of healthful behavior change has had impact on the field by:
- Contributing to a unified, cumulative science of behavior change, and transforming how the research field conducts behavior change research to include a focus on the mechanisms of action and a systematic approach to behavioral intervention development.
- Developing a Measures Repository that continues to evolve, with more than 100 publicly available behavioral science measures.
- Establishing a mechanistic approach as a key aspect of rigorous behavior change research, which behavioral and social science programs across the NIH consider as new programs are developed.
- Integrating mechanisms-focused behavior change research into NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices-specific funding opportunity announcements.
- Promoting collaboration with an increasing number of efforts and initiatives outside of NIH with an even wider research community now committed to improving the resources and tools developed by SOBC.
- A forty-year study: self-control behavior largely unchanged from childhood to adulthood
- Happiness examined from the molecular level: new study findings reveal a link between well-being, health, and our genomes
- Financial incentives can increase the effectiveness of smoking cessation programs
- How to study and predict self-regulation? It’s harder than we thought
For more highlighted scientific advances, please visit the program highlights page.
- Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later (2011)
- A functional genomic perspective on human well-being (2013)
- Prioritizing positivity: an effective approach to pursuing happiness? (2014)
- Randomized trial of four financial-incentive programs for smoking cessation (2015)
- Getting Over It: Long-Lasting Effects of Emotion Regulation on Amygdala Response (2015)
- Associations of mindfulness with glucose regulation and diabetes (2016)
- Think fast: rapid assessment of the effects of episodic future thinking on delay discounting in overweight/obese participants (2017)
- Everyday stress response targets in the science of behavior change (2018)
- Using rigorous methods to advance behaviour change science (2018)
- Uncovering the structure of self-regulation through data-driven ontology discovery (2019)
- Mindfulness-Based Blood Pressure Reduction (MB-BP): Stage 1 single-arm clinical trial (2019)
- Everyday stress components and physical activity: Examining reactivity, recovery, and pileup (2020)
- Setting a goal could help you control: Comparing the effect of health goal versus general episodic future thinking on health behaviors among cigarette smokers and obese individuals (2021)
For more SOBC publications, please visit the program publications page.
Learn more about the work of the SOBC Research Network in the following special issues:
- “An experimental medicine approach to behavior change: The NIH Science of Behavior Change (SOBC)” Behavioural Research and Therapy (February 2018)
- “Understanding and Predicting Health Behaviour Change: A Contemporary View Through the Lenses of Meta-Reviews” Health Psychology Review (February 2020)
- “The Science of Behavior Change: Implementing the Experimental Medicine Approach” Health Psychology (September 2020)
Resources and Tools
One of the key deliverables of the SOBC Program was the SOBC Measures Repository, developed and maintained by the SOBC Resource and Coordinating Center (RCC), which has also developed a public-facing website to further dissemination of a systematic approach for behavior change research. Additional products include the Grand Rounds webinar series, a program overview, and a program overview video. Visitors can subscribe to regular updates to stay apprised of SOBC RCC news, events, and additions to the Measures Repository.
This page last reviewed on August 27, 2021