June 17, 2015

Changing health behavior (once again)

World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior

Understanding human behavior is one of the main scientific endevours of our current times. As I have explained before, psychology, economics and neurosciences are making great progress in the last decades. Now the annual report by the World Bank puts all this stuff in one publication:
Three principles stand out as providing the direction for new approaches to  understanding behavior and designing and implementing development policy. First, people make most judgments and most choices automatically, not deliberatively: we call this “thinking automatically.” Second, how people act and think often depends on what others around them do and think: we call this “thinking socially.” Third, individuals in a given society share a common perspective on making sense of the world around them and understanding themselves: we call this “thinking with mental models".
In chapter 8 you'll find the application to health issues. A clear warning:
Telling people that there is a way to improve their health is rarely sufficient to change behavior. In general, successful health promotion campaigns engage people emotionally and activate or change social norms as much as they provide information. The message disseminated should be that others will support you or even applaud you if you do it, not just that something is good for you. Successful campaigns address many or most of the following: information, performance, problem solving, social support, materials, and media . A campaign should tell people that a behavior will improve their health (information), demonstrate and model the behavior (performance), reduce barriers to its adoption (problem solving), create a system for supporting people who choose to adopt it (social support), provide the materials necessary to begin adoption (materials), and provide a background of support through in-person, print, radio, television, and other approaches (media).
As you may imagine, this is much more difficult than simply giving information. This is precisely the greatest challenge.