Silhouette of two joggers running in the sunset
Social Action Lab

Behavioral Change

We study the psychological processes of behavioral change and how to elicit behavioral change through persuasive communications and more complex interventions.

The lab studies basic processes of behavioral change, which can begin with simple exposure to an idea in one’s environment or more explicit goal setting. Behavioral change depends on both external and internal factors, and we are interested in the role of the questions people ask themselves as well as the impact of environmental factors, such as social density, norms, and persuasive communications. Current projects in the lab involve looking at radical and incremental change, goal hierarchies, and the role of combining different goals to change behavior.

Selected Findings

How your past behavior changes your future behavior depends on how distracted you are.

When you can spend time thinking about what you have done, you form new beliefs about the outcomes of your behavior, which affects your attitudes and future behavior. However, your past behavior has an influence even if you cannot stop to think about it. When you are distracted, your attitudes become more favorable when you have done something in an inferential way, as proposed by Bem’s self-perception theory. When you concentrate, your past behavior persuades you in a more detailed way.

Outdoor Stairs with metal railing

The impact of persuasive communications and interventions on behaviors follows a stair shape.

The impact of knowledge is large. The impact on attitudes and beliefs is medium. The impact on behavior is small. Our goal is always to increase this small impact.

In behavioral change, the more the merrier.

You can get people to change a behavior more when you give them more recommendations rather than fewer. Telling people upfront to quit smoking, start daily walks, seeing more friends, and changing your diet is more successful than introducing one or fewer behaviors although for lifestyle the limit is four behaviors. This happens also in the areas of substance use and HIV prevention, testing, and treatment.

Agents of change are best when they are expert and similar to the intervention recipient in age and ethnicity.

A nurse or other professional facilitator is more effective than a peer when it comes to change in the area of HIV. This is especially true when recipients are from traditionally disenfranchised groups, like women and African Americans. 

Not all experts are created equal.

When recipients are from traditionally disenfranchised groups, experts of the same ethnicity and gender are more effective for behavioral change. That means that we need more nurses of color for populations of color, not just peers of color. For men and whites, similarity does not matter.

Teenagers wearing headphones and working on computers

Executing a behavior virtually can suppress your goal to execute it physically.

Playing an online game of ball can weaken the influence of environmental reminders of action on your intentions to exercise.

Seeing others take action can also suppress our goals.

Seeing other people do what we wanted to do can vicariously satisfy our goals and make us less likely to perform that behavior.

Default options work when we are in a hurry.

Default tips or donations are commonly used to engineer choice in ways that benefit society or the designer. However, we have found that people stick with the default option only when they are under time pressure. Are you being asked to tip 20% for awful service? People who have enough time to consider this information are likely to change that default selection.

Photo Credits (from top): Shutterstock / Kewiko, Unsplash / Denys Sudilkovsky, Unsplash / Fredrick Tendong