Dr. Jennifer Sumner, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and member of the Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) Research Network Resource and Coordinating Center, recently returned from a roundtable event at the 31st meeting of the European Health Psychology Society (EHPS). The conference was held in beautiful Padova (Padua), Italy from August 29th to September 2nd. The roundtable was titled “Behaviour change: Investigating mechanisms of action” and was co-chaired by Dr. Susan Michie, Professor of Health Psychology and Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change (CBC) at University College London, and Dr. Rachel Carey, an Associate Consultant of the CBC. 

Q: What did you learn about the similarities in the approaches of SOBC and the Human Behaviour Change Project (HBCP) to understanding how to drive behavior change?


A: Even though these are two unique projects taking place on either side of the pond, I was struck by a number of synergies in their aims. Both SOBC and the HBCP are investigating mechanisms of action of behavior change interventions. Indeed, my impression from attending the conference was that many of the European health psychologists have been focused on such mechanisms of action for quite some time, so it is great that the U.S.-based SOBC program can now work together with them in this pursuit. SOBC and the HBCP are also focused on translating research into practice, and there is an emphasis on open, collaborative, and systematic reportable methods. For example, both projects are using the Open Science Framework as a way to share study details and methods.

Q: Were there any notable differences in the approaches of SOBC and HBCP that might inform an improved scientific approach going forward?


A: SOBC and HBCP really are complementary projects, and I think their distinct contributions will together help to move the field forward. You can think of SOBC and HBCP as pieces of a larger behavior change jigsaw puzzle—each set of findings, along with others in the field, will make our understanding of behavior change clearer. For one, SOBC is focused on enhancing the inputs of behavior change science. With the use of an experimental medicine approach, SOBC is working to improve measurement of mechanisms of action, and the goal is to use this mechanism-focused knowledge to develop more targeted and effective behavior change interventions. In contrast, HBCP is focused on enhancing the outputs of behavior change science. They are looking to the existing behavior change literature and linking mechanisms of action with behavior change techniques. Their goal is to maximize the evidence we can derive from completed interventions. So you can see that SOBC and the HBCP span the spectrum of research progression, with SOBC at the point of informing future behavior change interventions and HBCP at the point of synthesizing the existing behavior change intervention literature.

Q: What was an interesting point of discussion raised by roundtable attendees?


A: It was wonderful to see such a full audience at the roundtable! We had a really engaged group of attendees, which made for a fruitful discussion. One especially thought provoking comment was about the importance of thinking about the role that context plays with respect to behavior change. Even though both projects place an emphasis on mechanisms of action, it is critical to consider how context influences those mechanisms of interest. For example, are there certain circumstances where key mechanisms are more or less likely to be engaged and how do we adapt interventions to different contexts in order to increase the likelihood of engagement? HBCP addresses the role of context directly in the ontologies of behavior change interventions that they are developing, and it is important for us to keep this point in mind with SOBC as well.

Q: Will there be another roundtable in 2018 involving both the SOBC and the HBCP?

A: We hope so! Given the great reception at this year’s EHPS, we are planning to put together another roundtable for next year’s conference in Galway, Ireland. During the 2017 roundtable, we learned about some other behavior change initiatives that are also underway, and we hope to include representatives from some of those in this new roundtable as well.


Q: Going forward, do you anticipate fierce American/European squabbles about whether there should be a “u” in the word “behavior/behaviour”?


A: Ha! Given the emphasis on international collaboration, I would say that there’s a place for both spellings to peacefully coexist.