What predicts human behavior and how to change it

In the largest quantitative synthesis to date, Dolores Albarracín and her team dig through years of research on the science behind behavior change to determine the best ways to promote changes in behavior.

Pandemics, global warming, and rampant gun violence are all clear lessons in the need to move large groups of people to change their behavior. When a crisis hits, researchers, policymakers, health officials, and community leaders have to know how best to encourage people to change en masse and quickly. Each crisis leads to rehashing the same strategies, even those that have not worked in the past, due to the lack of definitive science of what interventions work across the board combined with well intended but erroneous intuitions.

Decision making concept.
Image: iStock/VectorMine

To produce evidence on what determines and changes behavior, Dolores Albarracín and her colleagues from Penn’s Social Action Lab undertook a review of all of the available meta-analyses—a synthesis of the results from multiple studies—to determine what interventions work best when trying to change people’s behavior. What results is a new classification of predictors of behavior and a novel, empirical model for understanding the different ways to change behavior by targeting either individual or social/structural factors.

A new paper published in Nature Reviews Psychology reports that the strategies that people assume will work—like giving people accurate information or trying to change their beliefs—do not. At the same time, others like providing social support and tapping into individuals’ behavioral skills and habits as well as removing practical obstacles to behavior (e.g., providing health insurance to encourage health behaviors) can have more sizable impacts.

“Interventions targeting knowledge, general attitudes, beliefs, administrative and legal sanctions, and trustworthiness—these factors researchers and policymakers put so much weight on—are actually quite ineffective,” says Albarracín, the Alexandra Heyman Nash University Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Science of Science Communication Division of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, who also has an appointment in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. “They have negligible effects.”

Unfortunately, many policies and reports are centered around goals like increasing vaccine confidence (an attitude) or curbing misinformation. Policymakers must look at evidence to determine what factors will return the investment, Albarracín says.

Co-author Javier Granados Samayoa, the Vartan Gregorian Postdoctoral Fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has noticed researchers’ tendency to target knowledge and beliefs when creating behavior change interventions.

“There’s something about it that seems so straightforward—you think and therefore you do. But what the literature suggests is that there are a lot of intervening processes that have to line up for people to actually act on those beliefs, so it’s not that easy,” he says.

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.