Digital and Computational Demography

At a Glance Projects Publications Team


Self-Regulation and Health Behavior: How People Can Successfully Change Their Actions and Live Healthier

Sophie Lohmann, Emilio Zagheni; in Collaboration with Dolores Albarracín (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA)

Detailed Description

Many health outcomes are shaped by the choices we make, but adopting healthier behaviors can be difficult. Three of the top-ten US American New Year’s resolutions of 2017, for example, were health-related, but only 9% of over 1000 respondents felt they had achieved them (Statistic Brain, 2018). To better understand how behavior change can be successful, we study three steps in the interplay between self-regulation and health: the motivation to change a health behavior, the execution of that change, and the consequences of behavior change for health.

First, a person needs to be motivated in order to change a behavior (this is the motivation phase, which is part of the action phase model of Heckhausen and Gollwitzer, 1987). But so far, we know little about the different reasons that motivate different people. We expect that sociodemographic differences will influence which message framings are most effective, and we are therefore studying behaviors with multiple benefits. For example, we examine who is most motivated to reduce red-meat intake owing to messages that emphasize how this will reduce greenhouse gas emissions versus cardiovascular disease risk.

Second, once people are motivated, they need to execute their plans (volition phase), but here they often encounter obstacles – we all are familiar with having good intentions but failing to act on them. As part of a registered replication study, we explore one of these obstacles, namely, whether using self-regulation on one task makes it harder to successfully self-regulate on another task (ego depletion). In addition, we study strategies to translate good intentions into action over time (behavior change trajectories; e.g., whether it is more useful to begin with a demanding exercise program or with baby steps). Popular self-help books often recommend taking small steps to slowly change behavior, but we expect that in many cases, large, rapid change may be more effective. Our preliminary evidence suggests that a more radical change in behavior can lead to more success, whereas smaller steps may be associated with increased procrastination.

Third, because self-regulation can facilitate healthy and prevent unhealthy behaviors, we expect people’s overall self-regulatory skill to be related to their health, including mental health: Someone with self-regulation deficits may have trouble in inhibiting upsetting thoughts, and this could lead to uncontrollable repetitive negative thinking (e.g., worries). Such thinking, in turn, is linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety. In a meta-analysis, we have found that self-regulation difficulties are clearly associated with increased depression and anxiety, mediated by repetitive negative thinking, but that the strength of that association depends on how self-regulatory skill is measured.

We use a wide variety of methods to study these three steps of how self-regulation can lead to successful behavior change. These are primary data collection through both surveys and experimental interventions, including those that leverage new opportunities offered by online platforms; multi-level analysis and meta-analysis of a registered replication report; and a meta-analysis using cutting-edge methods to synthesize over 100 prior studies. The results from this project will offer insights into the effects of self-regulation on health and into how attempts to change health behaviors may become more successful.

Research Keywords:

Health Care, Public Health, Medicine, and Epidemiology, Psychology

Region keywords:

USA, World

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.