Insights from behavioural science for the COVID-19 pandemic

Posted Posted in Communication

By Shane Timmons, Economic and Social Research Institute, Ireland

Governments worldwide have mobilised to try to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, but the behaviour of individuals will be vital to their success. We – the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin – are working with Ireland’s Department of Health to inform their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this work, we’ve reviewed over 100 scientific papers and have begun testing ways to best communicate with the public, with lessons relevant for health psychology practitioners. In our review, we focus on literature relevant for three areas that have formed the basis for public health messaging in multiple countries: hand hygiene, face touching and isolation. We also address broader literatures on how to motivate helpful behaviour and communicate effectively in a crisis. 


The importance of assessing clients’ coping strategies

Posted Posted in Assessment, Coping

By Nadia Garnefski and Vivian Kraaij, Department of Clinical Psychology, Leiden University, The Netherlands

Rob has just heard that he has HIV (negative event). He thinks that he is the one to blame for this (self-blame) and he avoids seeing his friends (withdrawal). The situation makes him sad. When sitting at home, he cannot stop thinking about his feelings (rumination) and believes that what has happened to him is a complete disaster (catastrophizing). Because he feels sad, he has little energy. As a result, he withdraws even more. This makes him even sadder. In this way, Rob is drawn into a downward spiral.


Are your clients being defensive? If so, self-affirmation may help.

Posted Posted in Communication, Motivation, Self-affirmation, Self-efficacy

Peter Harris and Ian Hadden, The Self-Affirmation Research Group, School of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK

Have you ever been reluctant to face up to something you’d rather ignore? Maybe your fondness for something bad for you that you eat too often or your tendency to avoid health check-ups? Well, you’re not alone. Most of us think we are generally quite sensible and competent people. So, being told that something we do is not really sensible or competent can be quite challenging. As a result, we can be pretty skilled at resisting messages we’d prefer not to hear.


Becoming your better self as reason for changing behavior

Posted Posted in Mental Imagery, Possible selves

By Winifred Gebhardt, Leiden University, The Netherlands

About nine years ago, I became a vegetarian overnight. In a novel I was reading, the main character explained how he could not eat anything “in which at some time a heart had been beating”. Like a thunderbolt these few words sunk in. I realized that this was exactly how I felt. I stopped eating meat and fish instantly, and I have not had any problem sticking to this new diet ever since. The new behavior perfectly fitted the “person I am”. 

Conversely, in the past I used to jog regularly and could easily run seven kilometers. However, I never regarded myself as a “sporty person”, and whenever a barrier occurred such as being ill, I lapsed into being a couch potato. I now no longer try to “be sporty” but do try to walk whenever I can during the day. I consider myself an “active person”. 


N-of-1 studies: What can we learn by studying a single case?

Posted Posted in Assessment, Interventions

By Marie Johnston and Derek Johnston, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

Practitioners frequently want the answer to a problem which concerns one person, one health care team, one hospital or one region etc.  For example, it may be important to know how often an obese man snacks, when and where he snacks and if stress makes it worse.   Or you may wish to find out how often members of the healthcare team omit hand hygiene, if it is worse when they are under-staffed and if ward adverts improve it.  Or you may be investigating sources of clinical errors to check if they are more common on some wards or for some grades of staff.  Or, at a policy level, it might be valuable to investigate whether a new regulation, such as a smoking ban in public places has affected smoking rates.

You might try to answer these questions by asking people what they think or remember but it would be better to ask or observe at the critical  times and places to avoid problems of bias and forgetting. Recent technological advances such as digital monitoring using smartphones make it easier to track what is going on in real time and an n-of-1 study might allow you to answer your question.

N-of-1 studies are possible when the problem can be assessed repeatedly to look at change over time.  Then one can describe the problem and examine whether it is better or worse under some conditions.  Or one may introduce a new intervention or treatment and assess whether it is having the proposed effect.

The simplest evaluation of the data collected is the observation of trends on a graph as in the illustrations below.  This is an essential step in any n-of-1 analysis and can be sufficient. Additionally, there are methods of statistical analyses for n-of-1 studies.  More complex methods continue to be developed (e.g., methods for assessing dynamic change ).


Physical activity in older age: how much is enough?

Posted Posted in Goal setting, Motivational interviewing, Self-monitoring

By Anne Tiedemann, The University of Sydney, Australia

“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it”… Plato, 400 BC.

It’s long been known that making physical activity a regular habit is important for health and wellbeing. But health promotion messages often target children and young people, with less focus on the importance of physical activity in people aged 65 years and over. However, older age is a crucial time for making activity part of every day.


Raising weight in a consultation

Posted Posted in Communication

By Jane Ogden, University of Surrey, UK

Weight is a tricky problem to talk about in a consultation. Some patients may be sick of hearing the words ‘You could lose some weight’ every time they visit the clinic: regardless of whether they have come in because of a sore throat, a cervical smear or a potential heart problem. They may have experienced a lifetime of feeling stigmatised by the medical profession and think that all anyone ever sees is their body size. While this is so for some individuals, others may have never considered their weight as an issue, and could be insulted or surprised if it is raised. Some people may simply not want to hear the message and block out whatever is said, thinking for example ‘what do you know – you’re thin / fat / too young / too old’ or ‘science is always wrong.’ Raising the issue of weight therefore requires careful management of ‘when,’ ‘how’ and ‘what’ is said to an overweight person.


Self-efficacy: The “can-do” belief that lets people change their lifestyles

Posted Posted in Motivation, Self-efficacy

By Ralf Schwarzer, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany and SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland

Changing behavior may often be desirable but difficult to do. For example, quitting smoking, eating healthily and sticking to a physical exercise regimen all require motivation, effort, and persistence. While many psychological factors play a role in behavior change, self-efficacy is one of the most important.


Telling stories about caring for others

Posted Posted in Social Support

By Irina Todorova, Health Psychology Research Center in Sofia, Bulgaria

Taking care of aging loved ones, who are perhaps in frail health, can be a complicated and confusing experience that is both gratifying and frustrating. Medical science is helping people live longer, healthier lives, and in some cases can slow down the cognitive decline that frequently come with age. The way that families care for older members, as well as the meaning of aging, dementia and caregiving varies across cultural contexts. Most people are aging at home as members of their communities, which has psychosocial benefits for the older person as well as for the different generations of family members. At the same time, caring for people with declining health is accompanied with physical effort, psychological strain, grief related to ongoing loss and possibly financial difficulties for the caregiver. (more…)

Motivation and the first steps toward physical activity

Posted Posted in Goal setting, Motivation, Self-regulation

By Keegan Knittle, University of Helsinki, Finland

Here’s a familiar story from primary care: an individual who would clearly benefit from more physical activity comes into the clinic. We discuss their physical (in)activity, and in the end, the person says they just aren’t motivated to change. What’s a clinician supposed to do? How can we motivate this person to at least consider changing their behavior for the better? Or better yet, how can we help them to form good intentions for being active?