Why do we do things that we know aren’t good for us? It’s one of health care’s thorniest questions. Up to 39 percent of premature deaths from leading causes in
the United States — including heart disease, stroke and cancer
— stem from risks including smoking, drinking, drug abuse,
inactivity, poor food choices and other behaviors, according
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet despite
decades of efforts from health officials and providers, few
behavioral interventions have been successful at helping adults
significantly change their lifestyles.
“We are basically clear on things people should and
shouldn’t be doing, but with the exception of some progress
on physical activity levels and weight loss, we haven’t achieved
anything as large in scope as progress on tobacco use, which
took 50 years,” says Jonathan King, PhD, program director at
the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National
Institute on Aging (NIA).
“Everybody should lose weight and get exercise and quit
smoking and eat right, but nobody has a surefire way to
help people do it,” says Bill Riley, PhD, director of the Office
of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the
National Institutes of Health (NIH). “We need to get to the root
of this and see what really works.”
Researchers funded by the NIH Science of Behavior Change
initiative are working to do that. Co-chaired by the directors of the
NIA and the National Institute of Nursing Research, the initiative
is supported by the NIH Common Fund and has funded basic
research since 2009 on the biological and behavioral components
of behavior change, studies that are offering new insights into how
people make choices and form habits.
“Many behavioral health strategies have been formulated to
be one-size-fits-all, but we really don’t know which parts work
for most people,” says King, who coordinates the initiative’s
collaborative efforts among NIH institutes, centers and offices.
“Instead, we’re thinking past specific problem behaviors and
trying to find underlying patterns and mechanisms on which
we can intervene.”
The approach harkens back to the behavior change strategies
that came out of psychologists’ early laboratory work, Riley
says. “Whether it was Skinner doing operant conditioning or
Bandura doing modeling approaches, or even Pavlovian classical
conditioning, that work on basic mechanisms eventually led to
new techniques,” he says. “In some ways, the Science of Behavior
Change effort is a chance to go back to the lab.”
Here are some of the studies that have been funded by the
Exploring influences on risk taking: A study by Peter Sokol-Hessner, PhD, and colleagues at New York University, found that
Since 2009, the NIH Science of Behavior Change initiative has funded
basic research on how to develop and maintain healthier behaviors.
Here’s a sampling of what they’ve learned so far.
By Stacy Lu