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Translating Academic Research into Real Behavior Change

Prashant Srivatava June 8, 2018

“In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.”

— Computer scientist Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut

There are mountains of qualitative and quantitative research on the concept of behavior change, all with profound findings and theoretical opportunities. But how do we apply this knowledge in meaningful ways that help people in their daily lives?

Nobel-winning economist Richard Thaler, considered “the father of behavioral economics,” has delved deep into human behavior and what it takes to turn people’s ideas for behavior change into actual actions to achieve it. We looked to Thaler’s work, as well as the work of many other experts in the field, to crack the code on the key to inspiring real, and lasting, behavior change.

Short-term changes, like incorporating a jog into your daily routine or limiting a certain food in your diet, have a lot of support when it comes to motivational tactics—there are many tools to help people accomplish these things, but not necessarily to facilitate such change for a longer lasting period. As we aim to encourage people to engage with their benefits and improve their well-being, we thought: How can we use those scientific findings to influence longer-term decisions and changes?

By synthesizing the research that has been conducted on behavior modification, and reimagining its application within a seamless user experience, we began to see new and impactful possibilities for enduring behavior change.

A bigger opportunity

This insight led us to the creation of HealthQuests, interactive programs that give people relevant guidance to start making healthy changes—based on the best available academic research. Encouraging a small, guided step toward making a change, and teaching some basic principles to do so, allows us to help people realize their self-efficacy. As a result, they’re likely to feel better equipped to make a longer-term behavior change—and perhaps to enter into an employer-sponsored program to do so, like a tobacco cessation or weight management program.

When setting out to begin a HealthQuest, the first thing each person is asked to do is select their goal—perhaps it’s to lose weight. But the goal itself isn’t enough to begin a truly impactful journey to behavior change. Once a goal is selected, the person is immediately prompted to choose an action that will help them achieve that goal, such as cutting carbs or getting more steps in: these are HealthQuests. Converting intention into action is how we help move people from wanting to change to actually making efforts to change.

Once a recommended HealthQuest has been chosen, an action plan is put in motion and reaching the goal becomes that much more real. Each person goes through the following four steps on their journey:

Improve awareness

The Transtheoretical Model, developed by James O. Prochaska, presents the idea that people go through six stages of change to achieve a desired new behavior. These stages outline their process from picking a goal, to understanding the changes they need to make, to actually following through on those actions. At this point in HealthQuests, the person has selected their goal and their action, so we take this opportunity to educate them a bit on why this action is helpful for reaching their goal.

The education is typically delivered in the form of a short video that’s displayed alongside multiple-choice questions. This works as sort of a pre-test for most people, leading them to pay greater attention to the material and engage with it more. In addition, the multiple-choice questions are designed such that alternatives are plausible enough to trigger productive, retrieval processes within the brain of information from the video.

Take small steps and track progress

Insights from the University of Michigan’s Michelle Segar support the idea that people should identify short-term payoffs on their journey to behavior change, rather than only waiting for the long-term effects to kick in. People are typically more motivated to act when they think of the short-term “rewards,” rather than the ones that might be years down the line.

The goals people can select in HealthQuests are purposely major, long-term changes. To prevent them from feeling overwhelmed or getting discouraged, we include reinforcement of positive behavior within each step, as well as a visual representation of daily progress over the course of their journey through the quest. And while exploring the small steps on the way to a goal is key, monitoring them appropriately is even more critical, so our platform provides a daily tracker to help each person see what they’re doing. The concept of micro-progress comes into play here, or the idea that people can remain more motivated by feeling the achievement of smaller goals in the interim as they work to reach their main goal.

Determine barriers and implement tweaks to overcome them

B.J. Fogg’s model states that certain motivations, abilities, and triggers need to come together appropriately for a behavior change to occur. Throughout each HealthQuest, people are asked to identify behavioral or environmental elements that either perpetuate an unhealthy habit, or keep them from enacting a healthy habit. Then, they are taught various tweaks they can put in place to overcome those barriers and “trigger” the healthy behavior.

In our Carb Cutters HealthQuest, for instance, a common emotional element that leads to overeating carbs is a bad mood—i.e., many people eat to de-stress, and foods are that low in carbs aren’t usually the go-to options. A tweak the program might suggest in this case would be to find new sources of comfort for a bad mood, such as treating yourself to a nap or having a heart-to-heart with a friend.

When people pay attention to these elements, they become better equipped to align their motivations, abilities, and triggers to help them achieve their goal.

Gain understanding to make changes last

When the HealthQuest ends, we want to make sure people continue on their own to work toward their goal. To help prevent them from abandoning the changes and progress they’ve made, the experience we offer lets people understand what environmental and personal changes they can make in order to keep these new habits part of their long-term lifestyle. This was inspired by Dr. Brian Wansink, whose studies on improving eating habits indicate the key is adjusting your environment.

To support this concept, each HealthQuest concludes with actionable advice on how to set up your environment (home, office, etc.) to be conducive to making better choices, and to continue a successful path toward maintaining your goal after it’s been achieved.

The powerful results of bringing science into real solutions

Thanks to the compelling research from field experts like Thaler, Prochaska, Segar, Fogg, and Wansink, a wide range of intelligent theoretical frameworks is readily available for us to put into practice. Doing so has allowed these principles for behavior change to be applied to any habit someone wants to alter. Incorporating proven behavioral science from academic research into HealthQuests is enabling real lifestyle improvements for tens of thousands of people—and healthy habits are becoming simple ones.