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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, behavioral psychology can help you improve your health and reduce your environmental impact.

Want to cut down on single-use plastic but never remember to pack a reusable mug when buying your take-out coffee? Or maybe you know that too many cakes are not good for your health, but somehow they keep making their way into your shopping cart. Most of us have been victims of cognitive dissonance; when our actions don’t marry our beliefs.

What can we do to overcome this? One solution championed by innovators and academics is the use of behavioral psychology, the study of the connection between our mind and behavior, to help bridge the gap between intention and action.

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

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

“Many people rely on a purely willpower approach when trying to implement new habits,” says Noom’s head of psychology, Andreas Michaelides. But this often doesn’t work in the long run. When it comes to losing weight, for example, people can approach it as a fairly easy task because it is only about cutting calories. However, Michaelides says that losing weight 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 equaled the sum of calories in and calories out, people would have no problem on this journey, or there would be no 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, “it must work against the brain’s natural impulses to repeat established common processes. These changes are difficult to achieve as you will have to combat natural urges and solidified habits. “What’s more, he explains, is that as you try to” rewrite “these habits in your brain, fatigue from decisions and decisions often follows. the depletion of willpower.

So what to do? “It’s essential to set small, realistic goals that will help build your confidence around these new habits,” says Michaelides, adding that our mental well-being can suffer if we keep failing at something we think we should be able to master with just the strength of Will. .

Can behavioral psychology help us adopt more sustainable habits? Image: Louis Hansel

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

Sustainable thinking

This idea that success occurs when information in our brains is divided into manageable chunks also fuels a psychological approach that researchers at the University of Geneva are investigating. They posted a paper last year on how decision-making around sustainability can be improved through the concept of ‘mental accounting’.

The idea focuses on how people tend to create separate budget compartments in their minds, tied to specific things. For example, if someone goes to a concert but cannot find their ticket, they are unlikely to buy another because they have already spent the concert budget.

One aspect of mental accounting is called the spillover effect, which refers to the fact that we tend to justify one behavior for another. “Someone who struggles to cycle to work every day will use this argument to justify, to himself or to others, the purchase of a plane ticket to go on vacation to the Seychelles,” says Tobias Brosch, professor of psychology of sustainable development at the University.

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One possible strategy to prevent this could be to encourage people to think in separate ‘mental accounts’ for each different behavior, just as they would in a purely financial sense, as in our concert ticket example. For example, one for daily transportation and one for flights or vacations. The need to justify the behavior would then be “impeded due to the lack of fungibility [exchangeability] between accounts, ”says Brosch. Perhaps that person would use the financial savings that were made through cycling, on another goal focused on everyday transportation and respectful of the environment, such as buying an electric car.

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

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