To Change Behavior, Focus on a Single Situation

Atul Gawande has a great piece about the spread of innovation and the difficult process of changing deep-rooted behaviors. For example, while anesthesia became widely used in surgeries almost immediately after it was invented, it took decades before people consistently sterilized medical environments even though the danger of germs was well-known.

The surgeon J. M. T. Finney recalled that, when he was a trainee at Massachusetts General Hospital two decades later, hand washing was still perfunctory. Surgeons soaked their instruments in carbolic acid, but they continued to operate in black frock coats stiffened with the blood and viscera of previous operations—the badge of a busy practice. Instead of using fresh gauze as sponges, they reused sea sponges without sterilizing them.

Gawande goes on to describe the difficulty of training third-world birth attendants on best-practices that lower infant mortality. The good news is that meticulous but sustained in-person instruction appears to be making a difference.

Of course for most people, attempts to change behavior involve lower stakes. Eating healthier. Going to the gym. Calling your grandmother more often. But like the surgeon who must remember to constantly kill germs — when getting dressed, when taking out instruments, when entering the surgical room — somebody attempting to give up junk food can also feel as though constant vigilance is required. Watching TV, going to the water cooler, or meeting a friend at a bar can all lead to temptation. The result is that plans to change a certain behavior often involve a variety of situations in which people aim to be better.

This war-on-all-fronts strategy may seem promising, but a new study suggests it’s actually a bad idea. Researchers from the University of Utrecht wanted to find out if people would be more effective at changing their behavior if they made a single behavioral plan (technically called an “implementation intention”) rather than multiple plans. For example, if you’re trying to avoid checking Twitter, would it be more effective to make a single rule — e.g. “If I’m on a conference call with the Chicago office, I won’t open Twitter” — or, in addition to that rule, to also commit to not check Twitter upon waking up in the morning or getting into a taxi. The researchers reasoned that the multiple implementation intentions might “dilute” each other and lead to less behavioral change.

The study examined the unhealthy snacking behavior of participants who had previously signaled interest in reducing their snacking. Participants were divided into three groups. One group chose a single implementation intention that they wrote out in a format of “If [triggering cue], then [solution/altered behavior]” — for example, “If I watch Game of Thrones, I’ll eat only an apple.” A second group chose three implementation intentions, and a control group was simply instructed to think about healthy alternatives to unhealthy snacks. The participants then used a diary to track their snacking behavior over a three day period.

The results suggest that trying to change behavior through multiple plans is a fool’s errand. Relative to both the control and single-plan conditions, participants who made three plans reduced their snack consumption and calorie intake by a significantly smaller degree. In fact, relative to a baseline measure, participants in the three-plan condition consumed more calories. The single-plan participants performed better than those in the control condition, although both groups did quite well and the difference was not statistically significant.

A follow-up experiment supported the initial results and found evidence that there is a cognitive basis for the superiority of a single plan. Compared to participants who chose three situations in which they would resort to an alternative healthy behavior, participants who focused on a single situation were faster to recognize words that were part of the alternative behavior. Taken together, the experiments suggest that multiple plans do dilute one another and make a substantial change in behavior less likely.

The lesson is one that parents and teachers are familiar with. Take it slow. Go one step at a time. If you want to check Twitter less, focus on making breakfast instead of reaching for you phone when you first get out of bed, and focus only on that one change. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same can be said for improving your diet, whether it’s cutting the consumption of tasty but unhealthy snacks or entertaining but frivolous tweets.
Verhoeven, A.A.C., Adriaanse, M.A.A., de Ridder, D.T.D., de Vet, E., & Fennis, B.M. (2013). Less is more: The effect of multiple implementation intentions targeting unhealthy snacking habits European Journal of Social Psychology


One Response to To Change Behavior, Focus on a Single Situation

  1. Heather says:

    It makes sense that people are more likely to change a certain behavior when they are focusing on one specific situation. I think that if you try to change your behavior in too many situations, the likelihood of the behavior changing is going to be slim to none because the person is going to feel deprived. The feeling of deprivation can cause a sad or angry emotion which may in return cause the person to go back to the behavior they were originally trying to change in order to feel happiness or contentment again.

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