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Behavior Change and Duct Tape – the Stickier, the Better!


Adopting a new behavior, even one that is good for us, can be difficult. I belong to a gym, and I've come to observe each January with interest. That's when the resolutionists, as I affectionately call them, flood the gym for the first several weeks of the new year after making some sort of fitness resolution. The parking lot becomes crowded and exercise machines are busier than ever. (They really like the treadmills for some reason). While I hope a few new faces will stick with it and become familiar over the coming months, most of the crowd has dispersed by the early part of February and continues to taper over the following months until we're largely back to our usual routine. As I looked around the gym recently, I wondered: What would it take to retain a greater percentage of the resolutionists?

We know that individual behaviors are substantial contributors to our health outcomes, representing about 30-50% according to a Health Affairs Policy Brief. But how can we effectively take charge of our own health by implementing and retaining more healthy behaviors?

As described on a recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, two professors from the University of Pennsylvania have recruited a team of academics and researchers focused on harnessing the science of behavior change, including principles of behavioral economics. In response to a call from the MacArthur Foundation for a $100M prize to solve a social problem, they formulated a project, Making Behavior Change Stick, to "experiment with, and understand, and codify, and eventually distribute, to all of humanity, the most effective behavior-change nudges and incentives."

Their intended targets for healthy behaviors include:

  • Smoking cessation
  • Healthy eating
  • Increasing exercise
  • Reducing alcohol consumption

Unfortunately, they were not selected as finalists for the prize, but they are moving forward anyway, and Freakonomics Radio intends to follow their progress over time and share their learnings on this important health topic, pointing out the potential value of this effort:

"How much better would it be to have never gotten sick? If behavior change is indeed at the root of all the suboptimal, self-sabotaging decisions that we humans make, wouldn't it make sense to start there?"

Mike Silver, through his work as the vice president of improvement science and subject matter expert for our Key Knowledge staff development program, has introduced us to emerging change management concepts at HealthInsight, including behavioral economics and positive psychology. These approaches help people leverage their strengths and resources to achieve positive and desired behavior changes. The resulting reinforcing effects promote lasting change, whether it's a personal improvement goal or helping health care providers engage their patients in self-management behaviors.

I am excited to follow the progress of this ambitious project, as there are still several healthy behavior changes I would like to make, and I'd like them to stick. What changes would you like to make and keep? Stay tuned with me for more information on how to increase our chances for successful and lasting change!

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