Behavior Change: Step 1

I have to credit this post to Eric Eldon of Techcrunch, who told me to let people know about the potential harms associated with changing behavior so that we use behavior change science to improve people's lives. And he's right, before we start thinking about the mechanics of behavior change and how to implement them, its important that we first ask ourselves why we are trying to change behavior. Psychology and behavior change science is pretty powerful, and I'm sure you can think of examples of how it could be for good as well as evil, or, where it was initially intended to be used for good but ended up causing unintended negative consequences. The White House recently decided to follow Britain's lead in bringing on a "behavioral insights team" of psychologists to change behavior. With the recent privacy concerns resulting from government security, we can all imagine how this team of experts might end up providing more harm than benefit.

Psychologists and ethicists use a few different methods for evaluating whether intended outcomes would benefit others. They frequently rely on group consensus (asking other other people), looking for historical examples of what happened in similar situations, and turning to get input from experts and/or people who would be potentially at risk. However, all of these methods can be flawed. For example, people are notoriously bad at predicting how they feel in future situations, and so asking them how an event might impact them is not the best way to know how it will actually make them feel.

The take home point here is that we need to consider our motives before using behavior change science to change other people. We don't have a easy rule for guaranteeing that our objectives will be good for the world or improve people's lives in some way, so we'll have to individually determine whether it our intentions are good and ethical. I think it's important for us to spending time thinking about this question, and possibly exploring some of the methods presented here, before moving forward full force and learning how to change behavior to achieve those objectives.  


Sean Young PhD

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: