Behaviour Change, Social Practice Theory, and Learned Helplessness

Like others from the HTO group, I also attended the first week of the eHealth summer school, which was sponsored by EIT Health and ACM SIGCHI, the special interest group of human-computer interaction (HCI). The first week of the summer school took place in Dublin and I think it was fantastic! It was so great to attend the interesting lectures and to meet all these brilliant people, with whom I share an interest in improving healthcare and health IT. The lectures gave us food for thought, which is reflected in the blog posts that have been written about them (see posts by Åsa Cajander, Diane Golay, Ida Löscher, Jonas Moll). Something that stuck with me were various attempts to support people to change.

Behaviour Change & Compliance

During the first days, behaviour change theory and behaviour change interventions were discussed on several occasions, e.g. how to change behaviour like smoking, exercising, medication adherence etc. In one of our group activities, we applied the COM-B, which is a framework for understanding behaviour and stands for capability, opportunity, and motivation. I was neither familiar with the behaviour change theory nor medical interventions that make use of this theory and found it interesting and thought-provoking. A quote that I heard somewhere before kept creeping in my head: “Everybody wants to change the world but nobody wants to change.”

“Who Wants Change” by Mary Mavis

In his presentation on Fiction in the Design Process, Conor Linehan (School of Applied Psychology at University College Cork, Ireland) showed us this wonderful video, which can be related to a behaviour change that is rather extrinsically than intrinsically motivated:

Uninvited Guests from Superflux on Vimeo.

On Wednesday, ACM distinguished speaker Geraldine Fitzpatrick presented case studies in the context of real homes that exemplified the complexities designers face, e.g. that a neat prototype of a smart kitchen might look quite different than a real kitchen in a messy and complex world. She also talked about the importance to understand everyday routines, e.g. when it comes to medication management, people tend to put their medication in places where they have to take them (e.g. next to their bed; in the kitchen next to the coffee machine, …). She gave an excellent example of a person with Parkinson, who made a very conscious and informed decision not to take the prescribed medicine due to negative side effects that were so strong that he feared to lose his family. This patient probably would have been labelled “non-compliant”, however, his situation was more complex than that. In order to account for the complexity, Geraldine mentioned the concept of concordance as an alternative to compliance or adherence (see for example Chakrabarti (2014), The European Patient Forum (2015)). I can relate to this concept much more, especially considering blog posts like this by Carolyn Thomas, from whom I learned how strongly patients react to these concepts.

Social Practice Theory

In her second talk, Geraldine presented work by Blue et al (2016), who suggest the use of social theories of practices as an alternative to behaviour change theory to inform new ways of “conceptualizing and responding to some of the most pressing contemporary challenges in public health”. Geraldine gave an example where this was applied in relation to smoking cessation, which coincidentally was also the project topic that my group was working on through the week. Rather than looking at the characteristics of the individual smoker, in the use case Geraldine presented the focus was on the life course of smoking as a practice. It includes material and symbolic elements of which smoking comprises and how these may have changed over time, or to which other practices they are related (e.g. socializing, drinking, etc).

Something that struck me while working with my summer school team on our project was the premise: It is difficult to quit smoking. Having been a heavy smoker myself until I quit in 2005, this was something I also always believed myself. This changed when reading the book by Allen Carr which helped me to reframe the way I perceived smoking. As a smoker, I would have told you that I really liked smoking. Thus, every attempt to quit made me feel like I am missing out; everyone around me was “allowed” to smoke – only I wasn’t allowed (poor me!), because I (once again) had decided to try (!) to quit. When I saw others smoke, I envied them – and I felt very sorry for myself. This changed after reading the book. It made me realize that it’s not the case that I am not allowed to smoke, but I don’t have to smoke anymore. So instead of looking at smokers with envy, I empathized with them like “Look: they still have to smoke; I am free of this.” This reframing changed everything for me and indeed made quitting really easy. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, that I was missing out, I seriously felt liberated. The routines or practices I had as a smoker then changed. For instance, I used to enjoy smoking in my car (disgusting, I know! Well, I know now!), smoking when meeting friends, while drinking a glass of wine, etc. So in my previous attempts to quit smoking, I felt that something was missing, when I encountered these situations. However, after finishing the book, I experienced situations, which I realized to be much more enjoyable and stress-free as a non-smoker (e.g. going to the movies or visiting friends who don’t allow smoking at their home). Maybe I was more attentive to these positive new experiences. In addition, reading the book I did not only reframe „Smoking“ but also „Smoking Cessation“, because the author challenges conceptions that cessation is difficult and one would suffer from withdrawal symptoms.

Learned Helplessness

During the week, our group worked on project related to an app that was supposed to help cardiac patients to quit smoking. However, our prospective user did not want to stop smoking in the first place – which can be related to above discussion “Who wants change and who wants to change?”. At one point, I raised the question whether this person maybe have tried several times before to quit, has failed, and thus perceives cessation as being difficult. So why bother trying, right? And – as chance would have it – the other day during my morning run I listened to one of my favorite podcasts and learned that there is an app a theory for that: Learned Helplessness. In this episode, David McRaney interviews Kym Bennett, who researches Learned Helplessness. Depending on ones individual attributional styles (or explanatory styles), a person looks at an experience (e.g. a failed math test) and explain this for example in terms of “the test was particularly difficult; I didn’t study enough” or “I am bad at maths and all tests will be as difficult”. The latter interpretation is related to a pessimistic attributional style, which involves people who explain causes of negatives events as stemming from internal (“I am bad as math”), stable (“I’ll always be bad at math”, “I’ll fail also the next test”) and global forces (“This is pervasive”; “It will effect other aspects of my life”). I won’t got into more detail (please listen to the episode and the follow up; they are really great!), but following the learned helplessness theory, if a person has a pessimistic attribution towards something, then s/he believes that there is not much s/he can do about it (i.e. s/he perceives herself/himself as being helpless or powerless). Thus it is quite understandable that this person is not very motivated to change.

Coming back to my example, I don’t perceive myself as having a negative attribute style in general. But in relation to smoking cessation, I for sure had a pessimistic attribution: I failed at quitting before; I’ll for sure fail again; it’s really hard to quit smoking; everybody struggles to do that; I cannot really do anything about it. What the book then probably did was, what was explained in the podcast episode as attribution retraining. Allen Carr called his (not uncontroversial) method Easyway®, which already reframed what I thought about smoking cessation. Wait, what?? This is supposed to be easy?? The book helped me to reflect, to be more mindful and deliberate – as was also discussed in the episode to overcome learned helplessness. And I kept thinking: Maybe eHealth solutions should support this mindfulness and reflection to be helpful and effective in health interventions, where people struggle to change their behaviour, even though they want to?

Reflection on Behaviour Change

There was something about some of the behaviour change cases that bothered me, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it. I may have misinterpreted the cases, but at times I perceived the approach as rather paternalistic, which is something that goes against my personal values – and maybe even against the basic principles of human centred design or value sensitive design. I could much more relate to the social practice theory and the coaching / reflection model presented by Geraldine. However, today I got more food for thought when reading a blog post by Jelle van Dijk who responded to Diane’s reflection of the summer school. He wrote:

One thing that is not discussed however is that there are many humans on this planet. And most computers are in fact tools supporting humans quite well, only these humans are not what we call the “end-users”, who in turn may be very frustrated by that same system. In fact there are often multiple different “users” of computer systems and often it is no longer one person that is using the system but rather a whole organization or ‘society at large’.

and further he wrote:

So this is one complexity we may add to the question of how to design human-centered HCI: do we mean the individual user interacting with the system, or do we mean that complete computer systems should ‘fit’ to the needs of larger societal systems (which may sometimes lead to individual people complaining about having to fill out stupid forms online and so on) – or do we feel there’s a way in which we can make everybody happy.

Maybe this is the difference between the various approaches that I couldn’t see before. The approaches that I perceived rather paternalistic may serve rather the “society at large” (i.e. take your medication; stop smoking; exercise more; eat healthy… so that you don’t become a burden to the society) while the alternative approaches that use for example coaching and reflection help the individual to help themselves. In the end the goal of the individual might be in concordance with or contribute to the societal goals, but the underlying basics of the approaches are quite different. Why not aim for systems that help individuals to reflect on their behaviour, possibly help them change for the better (whatever that is…), and by that potentially contribute to the greater good? Or is it impossible to make everybody happy? 🙂

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