Applied lessons from the neuroscience of goals and behavior change

Our latest paper, in Consulting Psychology Journal, summarizes some practical lessons about goals, behavior change, and self-regulation that we’ve learned from neuroscience research. Read more below!

Abstract

The ways that people set, pursue, and eventually succeed or fail in accomplishing their goals are central issues for consulting psychology. Goals and behavior change have long been the subject of empirical investigation in psychology, and have been adopted with enthusiasm by the cognitive and social neurosciences in the last few decades. Though relatively new, neuroscientific discoveries have substantially furthered the scientific understanding of goals and behavior change. This article reviews the emerging brain science on goals and behavior change, with particular emphasis on its relevance to consulting psychology. I begin by articulating a framework that parses behavior change into two dimensions, one motivational (the will) and the other cognitive (the way). A notable feature of complex behaviors is that they typically require both. Accordingly, I review neuroscience studies on cognitive factors, such as executive function, and motivational factors, such as reward learning and self-relevance, that contribute to goal attainment. Each section concludes with a summary of the practical lessons learned from neuroscience that are relevant to consulting psychology.

Citation info:

Berkman, E.T. (in press). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change: Lessons learned for consulting psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal. [pdf]

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How can behavioral economics inform behavior change?

Our latest paper asks how behavioral economics – and its catalogue of “anomalies” – can inform the study of health behavior and behavior change.

Objective: Traditional models of health behaviour focus on the roles of cognitive, personality and social-cognitive constructs (e.g. executive function, grit, self-efficacy), and give less attention to the process by which these constructs interact in the moment that a health-relevant choice is made. Health psychology needs a process-focused account of how various factors are integrated to produce the decisions that determine health behaviour.

Design: I present an integrative value-based choice model of health behaviour, which characterises the mechanism by which a variety of factors come together to determine behaviour. This model imports knowledge from research on behavioural economics and neuroscience about how choices are made to the study of health behaviour, and uses that knowledge to generate novel predictions about how to change health behaviour. I describe anomalies in value-based choice that can be exploited for health promotion, and review neuroimaging evidence about the involvement of midline dopamine structures in tracking and integrating value-related information during choice. I highlight how this knowledge can bring insights to health psychology using illustrative case of healthy eating.

Conclusion: Value-based choice is a viable model for health behaviour and opens new avenues for mechanism-focused intervention.

Citation Info: Berkman, E.T. (in press). Value-based choice: An integrative, neuroscience-informed model of health goals. Psychology & Health. [pdf]

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Is self-control just choice?

This is not self-control

This is not self-control

Our new paper at Current Directions in Psychological Science asks whether self-control is “special,” or whether it is just like any other choice. We present a model for understanding and modeling self-control as value-based choice, and discuss the advantages that emerge from this approach. The most significant implication: extensive knowledge about how value-based choice works, including its various quirks and biases, can be brought to bear on the questions of why self-control sometimes fluctuates over time and how it might be improved.

Citation info:
Berkman, E.T., Hutcherson, C.A., *Livingston, J.L., *Kahn, L.E., & Inzlicht, M. (in press). Self-control as value-based choice. Current Directions in Psychological Science. [pdf]

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DeStasio wins prestigious NSF award!

Congratulations to Krista DeStasio on earning a 2017 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Award! The GRFP is awarded to highly promising doctoral candidates in many scientific fields, and fully funds three years of graduate school.

Congrats, Krista, on this well deserved award!

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Effects of stress on inhibitory control

Check out our new paper, led by grad student Leslie Roos, on the effects of acute stress on inhibitory control performance! The abstract is below:

Identifying environmental influences on inhibitory control (IC) may help promote positive behavioral and social adjustment. Although chronic stress is known to predict lower IC, the immediate effects of acute stress are unknown. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) may be a mechanism of the stress-IC link, given its psychophysiological regulatory role and connections to prefrontal brain regions critical to IC. We used a focused assessment of IC (the stop-signal task) to test whether an acute social stressor (the Trier Social Stress Test) affected participants’ pre- to post-IC performance (n = 58), compared to a control manipulation (n = 31). High frequency heart-rate variability was used as an index of PNS activity in response to the manipulation. Results indicated that stress impaired IC performance, blocking the practice effects observed in control participants. We also investigated the associations between PNS activity and IC; higher resting PNS activity predicted better pre-manipulation IC, and greater PNS stressor reactivity protected against the negative effects of stress on IC. Together, these results are the first to document the immediate effects of acute stress on IC and a phenotypic marker (PNS reactivity to stressors) of susceptibility to stress-induced IC impairment. This study suggests a new way to identify situations in which individuals are likely to exhibit IC vulnerability and related consequences such as impulsivity and risk taking behavior. Targeting PNS regulation may represent a novel target for IC-focused interventions.

Roos, L.E., Knight, E.L., Beauchamp, K.G., Berkman, E.T., Faraday, K., Hyslop, K., and Fisher, P.A. (in press). Acute stress impairs inhibitory control based on individual differences in parasympathetic nervous system activity. Biological Psychology. [pdf]

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Berkman Wins Early Career Award in Health Psychology

We have some great news!

Professor Elliot Berkman received the 2017 Early Career Award from the Social Personality & Health Network for his work integrating social and personality psychology and health behavior research. Congrats, Dr. Berkman!

The award was announced at the annual Social Personality Health preconference to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Meeting in San Antonio, TX.

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Text messaging to help smokers quit: Does personalization matter?

This is a guest post by Krista DeStasio about her recent paper, published in the Journal of Smoking Cessation.

Changing habits and behaviors is hard. We can all think of a time that we set a goal – cutting down on sweets, for example – and didn’t stick with it despite our best intentions. Quitting smoking is such a goal for many people. Specialized quitting programs can increase success, but those programs are not accessible to everyone. However, it is now possible to help people via text message regardless of where they live and how much money they make because of the ubiquity of cell phones. Research shows that delivering cessation support via text messaging is effective for a variety of goals: quitting smoking, adherence to HIV treatment, and diabetes management, to name a few. Some studies tailor the messages to the participant, such as by providing gender-specific health information to pregnant women trying to quit smoking. Social psychology indicates that personally relevant information is given special attention and remembered better than information that the person doesn’t find self-relevant, suggesting that tailored cessation messages may be even more effective than standard treatment messages.

My colleagues, Anne Hill and Elliot Berkman, and I conducted a study to find out whether highly self-relevant messages would help people quit smoking more than generic or only moderately self-relevant ones. We reasoned that the self-authored messages may be more helpful than more generic, expert-authored messages, since they would be uniquely relevant to the person receiving them. In our study, all participants wrote text-length messages that they thought would be helpful to them during their quit attempt. A third of participants were additionally instructed to write those messages in the form of “if-then” statements, such as “If I feel like I need a cigarette, then I will chew gum instead.” This format, known as implementation intentions has been found to increase the likelihood of obtaining long-term goals. The other participants were not given instruction about message format. Participants then received either their own self-authored messages or standard treatment messages every day for a month. This gave us three groups in the study: people who received their own “if-then” messages and received those messages, people who received their own messages without detailed instruction, and people who wrote their own messages but received generic messages. Everyone received six text messages per day.

Interestingly, everyone in the study decreased their smoking. There was some indication that the if-then messages were better than the controls, but they weren’t significantly different than the other tailored messages. At least in this study, the level of self-relevance of the received messages didn’t make a huge difference in how effective the text messaging intervention was. However, all participants composed their own messages, so it is possible that the extra effort the participants put in to write the messages made a difference, even if they didn’t receive those messages during cessation. Our next studies will test this, as well as the possibility that receiving messages that are personalized but not self-authored would be just as effective for quitting as actual self-authorship.

Full citation info:

DeStasio, K.L., Hill, A.P., & Berkman, E.T. (in press) Efficacy of an SMS-based smoking intervention using message self-authorship: A pilot study. Journal of Smoking Cessation. [pdf]

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Calcott wins APA award!

Good news! Graduate student Rebecca Calcott has been awarded a Dissertation Research Award from the American Psychological Association to support her project, “Cognitive Control: A Bridge Between Neurotransmitters and Real-World Behavior.” Congratulations, Rebecca!

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How mindfulness changes parenting

Here is a guest post by Lisa May about her recent paper, published in the journal Mindfulness.

Relationship between parents and their adolescent children are notoriously rocky. Nonetheless, research shows that a warm, caring parent-child bond can protect kids from problems during adolescence such as substance abuse, depression, and delinquency. That’s why it’s important to understand how parents can strengthen their relationships with their teenage kids. In this study, we tested whether mindfulness training might help. Parents and their early adolescent children (ages 9-13) attended an eight-week course together. In contrast to a traditional parenting class, parents and kids in our study learned mindfulness exercises that were designed to help them be present, kind, and open in their moment-to-moment experience. Parents and kids each answered questions about their lives and relationships before and after the eight-week course, and we measured parents’ brain activity before and after the course, too. This allowed us to look at how the mindfulness training affected parents’ brain activity, the parent-child relationship, and the connections between the two. Parent brain activity increased in areas related to self-awareness and emotion. Increases in parents’ brain activity in an area involved in empathy and emotion tracked with increases in their children’s reports of the parent–child relationship. In other words, the kids of parents whose brain activity changed the most in this empathy/emotion area felt the most improvement in their relationship with their parents. Based on this, we believe that parent empathy and emotion might be particularly important in parent-child relationships during adolescence. Mindfulness training might help parents be more empathetic with their adolescent kids.

Full citation info:

May, L. M., Reinka, M. A., Tipsord, J. M., Felver, J. C., & Berkman, E. T. (in press). Parenting an early adolescent: A pilot study examining neural and relationship quality changes of a mindfulness intervention. Mindfulness. [pdf]

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Hear Elliot on Self-control and Poverty on The Academic Minute

Listen to Elliot discuss his blog post about the effect of poverty on self-control over at The Academic Minute.

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