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Penn Spotlight: In the Quest for Lasting Behavior Change, Two Researchers Lead the Charge

Have you ever made a commitment to exercise more often? You sign up with a gym and succeed for a time but soon, too soon, the enthusiasm fades. Eventually, your workout clothes gather dust and your gym membership does nothing but empty your wallet. In the short term, changing behavior is doable, even exciting, but it’s really hard to make that change permanent. Ask anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking or eat less junk food. There’s a reason the phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” exists within popular vernacular. But Penn researchers Angela Duckworth and Katherine Milkman, along with more than two dozen scientists across the country, have a project they hope will turn fleeting life modifications into long-lasting habits. Called the Behavior Change for Good (BCFG) initiative, it launched this fall with an ambitious goal: to understand and improve behavior change across the lifespan, across many domains, using strategies grounded in psychology and behavioral economics. “There are billions of people in the world, pretty much all of whom have challenges related to goals they’d like to achieve, whether it’s weight loss or medication adherence or finances,” says Milkman, an associate professor in the Department of Operations, Information, and Decisions at the Wharton School. “Pretty much everyone is looking to self-improve, and whether they have a lot of resources or not, everybody could be better. Many things get in our way, but behavior is a struggle for everyone.” Duckworth and Milkman both felt a drive to focus on work that would have real-world implications for individuals, work that could lead to permanent shifts in the way people act. When the University put out a call for projects for 100&Change—a MacArthur Foundation competition for a $100 million grant to solve a single, critical world problem—the pair and colleagues drafted a proposal that they argued could help with the challenge of “enduring behavior change.” The team didn’t win the grant (it was one of the top 200 proposals out of thousands), but Penn and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provided enough funding for an initial three years. “We’re creating experiments to improve behavior change,” says Duckworth, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS). First up, the team is working on two projects, one related to gym attendance, the second to school performance. In the exercise experiment, dubbed The Step-Up Challenge, BCFG researchers have partnered with national gym chains 24 Hour Fitness and Blink Fitness, owned by Equinox. Combined, the two have memberships exceeding 4.3 million people, and the scientists are aiming for 10 percent participation, meaning hundreds of thousands of data points. “We want people to go to gyms more,” Duckworth says. “So we’re going to deliver 28 days of support—questionnaires, videos, educational materials, and a scheduling tool, as well as incentive payments for 28 days of gym visits, along with associated text reminders about workouts—designed by scientists at Penn and elsewhere. Then we’ll look at what the gym-going pattern is after the 28 days.” Lyle Ungar, a professor of computer and information science with appointments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, SAS, Wharton, and Perelman School of Medicine, and Barbara Mellers, a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor with appointments in SAS and Wharton, are creating one such experiment. Based on the idea that different incentives motivate different individuals, their online tool will offer options for the type of message a user would like to receive. “For one person, putting out gym clothes the night before works like a charm. For another, what she needs is a buddy. Maybe for a third person, something completely different might work, like thinking of this as being good for his children and grandchildren,” Duckworth says. “Rather than telling people, ‘Do this,’ the tool gives them a menu and has them essentially choose their own treatment. That is the treatment.”
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