The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) Common Fund program seeks to promote basic research on the initiation and maintenance of behavior change, and the application of such research toward personalization of interventions. This effort is intended to lead to an improved understanding of the underlying principles of behavior change by integrating research across disciplines. The 2012 annual meeting of SOBC investigators was held jointly with investigators from the Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet) focused on basic mechanisms influencing behavioral maintenance.
The integrated meeting provided an opportunity to explore areas of common interest and promote cross-fertilization between these related research efforts. Investigators presented progress on their work and participant discussions focused on exploring common themes and identifying next steps. The research presented at the meeting bridges work done in the laboratory and the field. The participants represented a cross-section of disciplines (behavioral economics, psychology, neuroscience, neuroeconomics, genetics, pediatrics, and clinical medicine) and included work at multiple levels of analysis (social, contextual, behavioral, psychological, neurobiological, and genetic).
SOBC projects included focus on various aspects of emotional self-regulation, behavioral economics, genetics, and social media. OppNet projects included characterizing habitual and goal-directed behavioral control systems, overcoming the persistence of first-learned habits, and neural mechanisms of habit formation and maintenance.
Several themes were apparent across multiple projects: the role of emotions, motivation, self-regulation, individual differences, and the different mechanisms underlying behavioral change versus behavioral maintenance. Behavioral change involves transitioning behavior from maladaptive habitual control to goal-directed control. Stress is known to interfere directly with the balance between goal-directed and habitual control and thereby impeding behavior change. There may be a variety of techniques to favor engagement of goal-directed mechanisms to gain control from adverse habits and several of these were presented and discussed during the meeting—meditation for stress reduction, explicit training then overtraining of new behaviors, cognitive or regulation strategies, and efficient incentive structures. Behavior maintenance likely involves both establishing new habits and inhibiting old habits. Individual differences play a large role at each stage and it will be important to understand genetic mediators as well as the computational and neural mechanisms.
The basic science of behavior change should be closely linked to planning policy. Suggestions for future meetings included a more active agenda involving collaborative discussion or problem-solving, strategies for optimizing multidisciplinary understanding, and engaging other stakeholders.
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