Government Relations Update

NIH Initiative on “Science of Behavior Change” Beginning to Take Shape

The initiative focuses on linking basic and applied science on how to change behavior.

By Patricia Kobor

Psychologists were pleased last year to hear that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Roadmap, a collection of trans-institute funding initiatives, would include an initiative primarily focused on behavioral science: “The Science of Behavior Change.” Roadmap initiatives are intended to focus on ‘outside the box’ research that differs from projects currently funded by NIH. Scientists at NIH held a meeting with extramural scientists in June 2009, to discuss how to frame the funding initiative to push forward the science of behavior change in transformative ways. A report of that meeting was recently approved for release:

The focus of the initiative is to link basic science approaches to studying mechanisms and processes of behavior change to applied science on behavior change interventions. The meeting included three panels designed to address key areas of behavior change science: acquisition and prevention of behavior, changing existing behaviors, and maintenance of behavior. A breakout session afterwards focused on issues of integration and ideas for future research directions.

The report explains that the meeting highlighted the importance of vertically integrated projects that link individual- and population-level analyses and promote cross-disciplinary engagement and new collaborations in order to accelerate the transformation of the health promotion and disease prevention landscape. One premise was that health-related behavior change at the individual level is well studied, and so the greater challenge now is developing methodologies for examining how health-promoting behaviors are initiated and maintained at the population level and how population-level and individual-level processes are linked within causal loops.

Eleven key concepts or themes are discussed in the report. Below are some of the themes cited and examples of the discussion (in quotation marks) that marked each theme.

Behavioral bundles

“Behaviors that are clustered or correlated likely have common underlying processes, and considerable support emerged from the meeting for approaches that target multiple behaviors at once.” (p. 9)

Developmental perspectives on behavior change

“A developmental approach to behavior change does not necessarily assume that earlier intervention is better but rather that there may be critical developmental stages at which targeted interventions would be most effective.” (p. 10)

Behavioral economics

“Behavioral economics shares some core principles with classical economics; for instance, that incentives matter and that people primarily respond to prices. However, there are some major differences, foremost of which are the notions that people have limited processing ability and willpower, that preferences are often constructed, and that social mechanisms can be far more powerful than greed.” (p. 12)

Environmental context of behavior and behavior change and implications for treatment

“Understanding behaviors in the context of the immediate, real-world environment is necessary to understand how to change those behaviors,” with a focus on phenomena such as stress and brain adaptations and gene and environment interactions. (p. 14)

Methods and measurement

“There was strong support for development of new methods for collecting, simplifying, analyzing, and disseminating complex, dynamic, and multilevel data, such as that generated by real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and genomic analyses. One way of achieving this could be by soliciting applications that explicitly link methodology with clinical science.” (p. 17)

Better understanding of mechanisms

“There is a significant need for more sophisticated examination of behavioral mechanisms of change as an end in itself… Effective treatments, particularly over the short term, have been established for problem behaviors, but the essential ingredients of treatments or their mechanisms of change remain to be identified.” (p. 20)

The committee charged with developing the Science of Behavior Change Roadmap Initiative is co-chaired by Patricia Grady, Director of the National Institute of Nursing Research, and Richard Suzman, Associate Director of the National Institute on Aging for Behavioral and Social Research. The report does not detail specific next steps in the development of the initiative, but the committee will continue its work and is likely to call additional meetings to shape the initiative further.