Behavior Change is Complex

As we are amid this current COVID-19 pandemic, the nation is asking people to change their behavior. It sounds simple, but behavior change is difficult. I recently read an article in the American Journal of Health Education by Robert Bensley who talks about this concept. Changing behavior shouldn’t be difficult because we now know the harmful behaviors and the impact on our health. Yet we see it all the time. People who continue to smoke, lack exercise, large alcohol consumption, an unbalanced diet, and refusing to begin treatment for a wide variety of other issues. So it perplexes me to some extent that the government officials are completely frustrated with people’s lack of compliance in behavior change. Yes, we should endorse and follow these guidelines but the complexity of getting so many people to adhere is challenging to say the least.
Behavior change used to be simple. Perhaps because we had fewer choices. When it was dark outside and your mom called you inside, you went inside. When there was a train coming, you stopped at the tracks. You didn’t try to beat the train in your car. When we had fire drills in school, (and I also had air raid drills) or lockdowns, we all stopped what we were doing, changed our behavior and complied because we knew the consequences. We did not have to be told time and time again why it was important.

I was in Home Depot recently. I was painting my bedroom, had all my supplies early on, but ran out of paint. As I was in the store, doing one task, I noticed other people trying to decide which patio furniture to buy and another couple working with an employee to help design their new kitchen. This was an essential trip? No wonder we are slow to flatten this curve.
As Bensley points out, we now have several theories on behavior change. I teach these theories in my classes and students have had a hard time keeping them straight. Behavior change is not simple. People are uncomfortable with new behavior. It is the unknown for them. “If I stay with my known behavior, I will feel more secure and everything will turn out”- a typical thought process. Yet we know the opposite is true, and all we need to do is listen to the news to receive confirmation.
Perhaps if we educate early on the importance of behavior change to our students, in our health and physical education classes, set goals, self-manage, we might be able to flatten any future curves in a timelier manner.
Marcia Berke, Ed D
Northern Illinois University

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