Science of Behavior Change Fourth Annual Meeting of Investigators
June 23-24, 2014
The goal of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Common Fund’s Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) Program has been to enhance understanding of the basic mechanisms of behavior change across a broad range of health-related behaviors, and, in doing so, unite disparate research fields and bridge basic and clinical science, ultimately leading to the development of more efficacious and efficient interventions. The SOBC Program has spent the past year evaluating progress made, identifying challenges yet to be addressed, and exploring logical next steps. This year’s Annual Meeting of Investigators served a dual purpose—to learn of progress made on SOBC-funded research and to leverage the knowledge, experience, and expertise of SOBC-funded researchers and invited guests to inform opportunities for the future of the SOBC Program. The SOBC 2 Program proposes to explore behavioral targets and constructs in the broad domains of self-regulation, stress and stress reactivity, and interpersonal and social processes more deeply in the future.
SOBC 2 Target Classes
The nomological network in which the concepts of self-regulation and self-control reside is broad and includes constructs that figure centrally as hypothesized mechanisms, targets, or behavioral phenotypes in research on health behavior and behavior change across a wide range of conditions and developmental phases. Constructs in the target class of self-regulation appear to be indexing multiple mechanisms and processes, some likely distinct, others overlapping, and for which the developmental trajectory is not fully mapped out. This suggests—at a minimum—the need for more cross-validation to confirm findings by repeating experimental manipulations in one project using an independent assay technique from other research, as well as cross-calibration, to permit comparisons across projects where self-regulation/self-control has been measured differently, and where re-assessment is not possible. The goal of such work would be to determine the extent to which various measures of self-control and self-regulation are tapping distinct or overlapping mechanisms, and whether measures are performing similarly across populations, laboratories, and age groups. Work is also needed to determine which measures are appropriate for which contexts, which are redundant, and which truly assess targets that are engaged by interventions in ways that are meaningfully related to behavior change.
Stress and Stress Reactivity
Both chronic and acute stress exposures have been associated with maladaptive health behavior profiles. Heightened sensitivity to threat may constitute a stress-reactive phenotype that predisposes individuals to maladaptive behavioral and psychological responses when confronted with stressors. Although in many situations stress is closely related to processes involved in self-regulation, researchers have noted that the stress response system may have its own set of targets and downstream behavioral and physiological consequences—which suggests additional potential intervention and moderation strategies. Yet current measures of stress exposures and stress reactivity (e.g., inventories of stress exposures, diurnal cortisol rhythms) have been inconvenient or difficult for behavior change researchers to include in actual trials. Future technological advances in stress measurement for observational and clinical studies hold promise for inclusion in behavior change research.
Interpersonal and Social Processes
The influence of social partners and social network members on health behaviors is a topic of substantial research, and numerous mechanisms have been identified that account for social influences on individual behavior. There are powerful social variables that can support or undermine health behaviors (e.g., attachment alliance, social grouping for safety, loneliness/social connectedness). People are sensitive to the social signal in a message and the social value of behavior. In addition to assays of individual consequences of interpersonal mechanisms (e.g., self-reports, physiological or neural responses in individuals), thorough assessment of interpersonal mechanisms requires systematic observational coding of putative causal processes.
Environmental Factors as Moderators
Prominent among the approaches to behavior change that have targeted the environment are those based on behavioral economics. Behavioral economics involves the study of the psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors that drive choice, including choice related to health-related behaviors (e.g., eating unhealthful foods, engaging in sedentary versus physically active behaviors). Research has demonstrated that individuals’ decisions are sensitive to cognitive biases, such as default bias, that may be difficult to intervene on directly (i.e., within the individual) but might be possible to exploit via an intervention targeting the environment (i.e., a manipulation of the “choice architecture” in which a particular decision or behavior is enacted). Discussion during this session explored how environmental manipulations can be leveraged to induce large-scale behavior change and possible approaches to examining the interaction between environmental factors and behavior change targets at the individual (e.g., self-regulation, stress reactivity) and interpersonal levels.