What makes some behavior change difficult? Insights from trying to change unhealthy behaviours


Medley Theatre,
Redmond Barry Building
Parkville, 3010

This presentation is grounded in over 30 years researching the challenges of reducing tobacco smoking and to a lesser extent excessive sun exposure. . It is designed to raise issues where research is likely to prove fruitful. No single type of interventions is enough and the nature of the interventions we need change as the characteristics of the remaining smokers change, inevitably as a result of the remaining smokers being those least affected by the strategies that have been used. Work on the impact of contextual constraints on smoking reveal that while they have some effect on consumption, and marked effects where cigarettes are consumed, they have very limited effects on prevalence, at least among established smokers. I also describe how I was forced by evidence to accept the importance of strong fear-evoking messages for motivating healthy behaviours, but more recently I have also begun to be aware of their limitations, including a failure of most smokers to really understand what is harming them. This lack of understanding may be acting to undermine the pursuit of harm-reducing options. Affect is clearly central to behaviour change, but our challenge would appear to be to create appropriate affect for what we rationally determine is in our best interests, rather than either try to act simply on the basis of rationality, doping what others say we should, or by seeking justifications for what feels right, none of which result in desirable outcomes. To have us want to do what is in our best interests requires a person-centered approach to interventions that is grounded in peoples current understanding of the problems they face and their varying individual needs.

Speaker bio

Professor Ron Borland PhD joined the School of Psychological Sciences in July 2019. For the previous 33 years he has been a researcher at the Cancer Council Victoria, most recently as the Nigel Gray Distinguished Fellow in Cancer Prevention (since 2004). He is recognized internationally for his work, especially in tobacco control, and has served on National Committees and provided several consultancies for WHO. He has published more than 400 peer-reviewed papers. He is listed in the Web of Science list of the World’s most influential scientists. He is one of the Principal Investigators of the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project: an international collaboration that is analysing the impact of policies on smoking behavior. His work has led to better understanding of the challenges of preventing relapse. He has developed a range of mass-disseminable, smoking-cessation interventions, including the QuitCoach which he has shown to be effective in randomized trials. He is also currently researching harm minimization strategies and strategies to assist highly disadvantaged, high risk prevalence groups of smokers. He has written extensively on systems approaches and ways of integrating individual level and population-focussed change. He is the developer of CEOS theory: a comprehensive theory of Hard to Maintain Behaviour Change.