Changing individual behavior is a difficult task, ask anyone who has tried to lose weight or stop smoking. New research finds an information strategy that focuses on the positive benefits of the change is a more effective approach than a message that warns of guilt, fear or regret if the behavior is not performed.

The findings hold true for both health behaviors and environmental actions, according to a report issued by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Behavioral change is a global imperative as individual responsibility for health and well-being and proactive care of the environment become critical societal issues. People are asked to recycle more, use cars less often, exercise daily and improve diet. However, a question remains: What messages have been successful, and why?

Theories have long suggested that by changing attitude, social rules and peoples own ability to reach their goals, people’s intentions or decisions to act in a particular fashion will be changed, which in turn determines the extent of change in behavior.

But the supporting evidence for these widely accepted ideas was weak; there was a need to take a closer look at experiments that changed attitudes, norms and self-efficacy in order to measure the true extent of any changes in subsequent intentions and behavior.

The research project, ‘Does changing attitudes, norms or self-efficacy change intentions and behavior?’, led by Professor Paschal Sheeran of Sheffield University, provides the crucial missing evidence about the role of these three factors in behavior change by reviewing all the successful experiments in the past 25 years and quantifying their effects on decisions and actions.

The team identified 33 distinct strategies for changing intentions and behavior across the 129 different studies. The most frequently used strategies provided general information, details of consequences and opportunities for comparison. Yet the most effective strategies were to prompt practice, set specific goals, generate self-talk, agree upon a behavioral contract and then review the behavioral goals in a prompt manner.

The two least effective strategies involved arousing fear and causing people to regret if they acted in a particular fashion.

They also examined whether the characteristics of a particular study influenced how well changes in attitude, social norm and self-efficacy influenced intentions and behavior. There was little evidence that the way factors were measured influenced the findings, though studies that used students or had short follow-up had stronger effect on intentions.

The team’s findings show that changing attitude, social norms and behavior succeeds in making a statistically noticeable difference in people’s intentions and behavior about 60 per cent of the time. The team found the amount of change in intentions and behavior to be ‘meaningful’ and of ‘medium’ size according to standard procedures for describing effect sizes.

Source: Economic & Social Research Council