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How behavioural psychology can help you put your intentions into action

From losing weight by tapping into your psyche, to better understanding what motivates you to make sustainable lifestyle choices, behavioural psychology can help you to improve your health and reduce your environmental impact

From losing weight by tapping into your psyche, to better understanding what motivates you to make sustainable lifestyle choices, behavioural psychology can help you to improve your health and reduce your environmental impact

Do you want to reduce single-use plastic but never remember to take a reusable cup when buying your takeaway coffee? Or maybe you know that too many cakes aren’t good for your health but somehow they keep making their way into your shopping basket. Most of us have fallen prey to cognitive dissonance; when our actions don’t marry up with our beliefs.

What can we do to overcome this? One solution that innovators and academics are championing is the use of behavioural psychology – the study of the connection between our minds and behaviour – to help bridge the gap between intention and action.

The approach is used by Noom, a digital health platform that provides educational articles, tools for tracking progress, and support from virtual coaches, to help people work towards their health goals. It draws upon cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a popular talking therapy that helps people manage problems by changing the way they think and behave, as an integral part of its programme. The curriculum encourages self-awareness and provides gentle nudges to help people stay on track.

Behavioural psychology helps bridge the gap between intention and action. Image: Sam Owoyemi

“Many people depend on a willpower-only approach when trying to implement new habits,” says Noom’s chief of psychology, Andreas Michaelides. But this often doesn’t work in the long-run. When it comes to losing weight, for example, people may approach it as a fairly easy task because it’s just a matter of reducing calories. However, Michaelides says weight loss is not easy at all.

“Have you ever heard a friend say, ‘I know what to do, but I just can’t do it?’ If weight loss only amounted to the sum of calories in and calories out, people would not struggle on this journey, or there would not be a prevalence of obesity in our society. Unfortunately, the reasons for eating certain foods are not always easy to identify or change.”

“To change a habit,” he continues, “you must work against the brain’s natural urges to repeat common, established processes. These changes are difficult to accomplish as you will need to combat natural impulses and solidified habits.” What’s more, he explains, is that as you try to “rewrite” these habits in your brain, decision fatigue and willpower depletion often follow.

So what to do? “It is essential to set small, realistic goals that will help build your confidence around these new habits,” Michaelides says, adding that our mental wellbeing can be affected if we keep failing at something we think we should be able to master through willpower alone.

Can behavioural psychology help us embrace more sustainable habits? Image: Louis Hansel

“When diets fail people tend to turn on themselves as they start to feel inadequate or see themselves as the failure. However, the more we break down unrealistic goals and expectations, the more we can begin to see that we can make changes.” By providing users with bite-sized ‘courses’ broken down into 1-3 minute modules, this is exactly what Noom aims to do.

Sustainable thinking

This idea that success comes when information in our brains is split into manageable chunks also feeds into a psychological approach being investigated by researchers from the University of Geneva. They published a paper last year on how decision-making around sustainability can be improved through the concept of ‘mental accounting’.

The idea is centred around how people tend to create separate budget compartments in their minds, linked to specific things. For example, if someone goes to a concert but can’t find their ticket, they are unlikely to buy another as they have already spent their concert budget.

One aspect of mental accounting is called the spillover effect, which refers to the fact that we tend to justify one behaviour by another. “Someone who makes the effort to cycle to work every day will use this argument to justify, to himself or others, buying a plane ticket to go on holiday to the Seychelles,” says Tobias Brosch, professor of the psychology of sustainable development at the university.

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A possible strategy to prevent this could be to encourage people to think of separate ‘mental accounts’ for each different behaviour, just like they might do in a purely financial sense, as in our concert ticket example. For example, one for everyday transportation and one for flights or holidays. The urge to justify behaviour would then be “impeded due to the lack of fungibility [exchangeability] between accounts,” Brosch says. Perhaps that person would then use any financial savings that came about through cycling, on another environmentally friendly everyday transport-centred goal, such as buying an electric car.

When it comes to any personal goal – health, environmental or otherwise – Michaelides believes the possibilities are endless when we approach them through a behavioural psychology lens. “Behaviour is an essential component of many of the goals we want to achieve. By expanding your knowledge of how behaviour change works, you can apply these principles to any area of your life.”

Main image: Laurenz Kleinheider

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