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Why knowledge alone doesn't create behavior change

By Jennifer La Guardia PhD, Senior Behavior Scientist

Human behavior is complex. Frequently, interventions promoting health behavior change tend to focus on teaching people the nuts and bolts of the behavior change itself without considering the broader context in which these changes occur. Currently, health interventions tend to assume that information alone creates sustainable behavior change. While this may make sense on an intellectual level, individuals need a more integrated approach: one that takes into account the complexities of deeply ingrained patterns. 

Addressing the complexities of human behavior

Providing knowledge and guidance is of course essential. Without the proper set of tools, carrying out a set of behaviors is exceptionally difficult. Oftentimes, programs take a one-size-fits-all approach that prescribes goals that are ill-matched to individuals’ unique interests and needs, while proceeding at an unsustainable pace. This is a problematic combination. Not only does it increase the likelihood of failure among participants, but because people have different starting points in both their knowledge and ability to integrate change in their lives, it sends a message that the program comes before the unique needs of the participant. Keeping this in mind, programs need to shift their focus to a participant-forward approach, ensuring an optimally challenging approach to behavior change.

But motivation for behavior change requires much more than providing tools for carrying out the behaviors. In order to ensure sustained behavior change, programs need to engage with participants in ways that elicit their own goals, interests, and plans so that they can develop their own value for and interest in their health. For example, if parents prioritize quality time with their children, then the health goals should support such values. In practice this might mean involving their kids in meal prep or taking walks with them after school to check in about the day, thereby modeling healthier living, ensuring quality time, and achieving personal health goals all in one fell swoop. When individuals feel deeply connected to the behaviors they are attempting to change, they may be more likely to push through tough times and sustain the behaviors in the long run.

Lastly, a supportive environment is critical. Changing behaviors can at times feel threatening to others, or it can shake up the rhythms of how a person interacts with family, friends, co-workers, and other important relationships. Renegotiating change also takes time and some diplomacy. Building strong alliances of support and being able to address those who create roadblocks goes a long way to ensuring sustainable change. 

Remembering They Have Lives Outside of Our Programs

Stress is inevitable. When people experience periods of  intense, frequent, and overwhelming stress, they have a decreased capacity to make a change. Programs tend to take on a rather myopic focus on program goals, oftentimes forgetting that people have lives outside of the program. And, many programs are designed in a way that encourages people to make many changes at once, which can cause its own stress. Participants need to identify and solve the problems on their plate and find solutions that work for them at their own pace. By learning how to tackle this process, people can apply these same strategies to make progress towards change.

Embrace the Journey

Sustainable behavior change is at the crux of our participants’ long term engagement and success. The Omada program is designed to work closely with our participants to understand their core desires and needs and provide them with various means of emotional support along the way. Each participant is assigned a group to communicate with throughout the length of their program, in addition to the ongoing support they receive from their health coach. 

Because behavior change is an ongoing process, with new and evolving challenges, our coaches pay attention to the bumps in the road, the times when the pace needs to be slowed, and the times when participants feel as though all is smooth sailing. Drawing on participants’ own motivation to persist through the natural ebbs and flows of this journey becomes an important skill for both initiating and maintaining behavioral changes. 

Adopting a motivational lens to intervene can help us to account for the varied challenges that are a part of the health behavior journey. Stay tuned for our next segment that explores how incentives can undermine this motivation.