Have you ever decided to change your deep-seated habits: to adopt healthier ways of life, stop impulse buying or reduce private car driving, for instance? The idea about starting may be strong, but then the change in itself feels very hard to make. What can you do and why?

At the University of Jyväskylä, there is research going on concerning behavioural changes. The new cross-disciplinary profiling area of research (BC-Well) investigates factors related to behavioural changes and develops change interventions to promote health and well-being. The aim of the profiling area is to encourage researchers of the whole university to collaborate in order to form a critical mass of leading experts in the field.

New Assistant and Associate Professors appointed to the BC-Well profiling area – Keegan Knittle, Miriam Nokia, and Virpi-Liisa Kykyri – present ten points pertaining to behavioural changes: What kind of things have an impact on the success of change?

Assistant Professor Keegan Knittle, Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences:

1. Use self-monitoring to open the door for change.

Using apps or wearables (or even pen and paper!) to track a behavior does a lot of good things: It informs people of how they currently behave and sets the starting point for the behavior change journey; It helps to focus attention on the behavior; It increases motivation; It helps people set realistic goals; and it can itself change behavior.

2. Old habits die hard.

For behavior change to occur in someone who has consistently kept an unhealthy diet or inactive lifestyle for many years, old behavioral patterns must degrade and be replaced with new ones. Building new behavioral routines takes time, effort, and a lot of repetition. Only when the strength of a new habit overtakes the strength of an old habit can lasting behavior change occur.

3. One size does not fit all.

People differ considerably in what drives their behavioral patterns. They also differ in how they respond to interventions meant to change these behavioral patterns. The cutting edge of research in behavior change science involves building personalized models to reliably predict behavior, and using these models to deliver personalized behavior change interventions to people at the times and places they are needed most.

Keegan Knittle

Assistant Professor of Exercise Psychology Keegan Knittle studies motivation for physical activity and digital interventions for behavioural change. Knittle holds a doctoral degree from the University of Leiden, Netherlands, in the field of health and clinical psychology.

Before this job in Jyväskylä and the BC-Well- team, he worked in a social psychology unit of the University of Helsinki, as a co-leader of the research team of behavioural change, health and well-being.

Associate Professor Miriam Nokia, Faculty of Education and Psychology and Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences:

4. Behavioural change is based on plasticity of the brain.

The basic neural mechanisms of learning are similar in all mammals and irrespective of the context. Hence, besides involving human subjects, basic research can also be done using e.g. rats or mice. It was thought earlier, for example, that changing a learned behaviour would happen by unlearning or forgetting of old habits. Brain research has shown that at the neural level, also extinction is basically about learning new things. Thus, what was learned earlier does not disappear from memory, even though one’s behaviour is no longer based on it.

5. Alertness and fitness make a difference.

For learning, certain states of the neural system, the brain and the whole body are more favourable than others. In general, good physical health also enables plasticity of the neural system. In short term, such adaptability is enhanced by sufficient but not too high alertness. On the other hand, high activation in a strongly affective situation strengthens the formation of an engram, in other words, the incident is stored in memory more effectively than things that are found neutral.

6. Rest is a significant factor.

Behavioural change is based on structural and functional plasticity of the nervous system. Here, rest and sleep play an essential role. During sleep, the brain is reset to a balanced state, which enables continuous learning of new things. In rest and sleep, the neural representations from the previous awake period are further elaborated. Some of these engrams are removed, while some others are strengthened so that they will stay in the long-term memory.

Miriam Nokia

Associate Professor of Psychology Miriam Nokia studies especially the basic mechanisms of the central and autonomous nervous system underlying behavioural changes. Nokia leads a research team funded by the Academy of Finland and studies how experiences become stored in memory, to the distributed neural networks of the brain.

Nokia’s research team also investigates how nearly real-time data on bodily rhythms, such as respiration and heartbeat, can be utilised in the regulation of learning and memory functions.

Associate Professor Virpi-Liisa Kykyri, Faculty of Education and Psychology:

7. Social support is important in behavioural changes.

For our well-being, we need connections with other people. Social support is important when we seek change. With support and encouragement from others, one can find such personal competences, resources, and mental strength which one would not have believed to exist on one’s own. If you wish to succeed in a change to promote well-being, think who could lend you suitable support, and tell your goals to this person. One of the finest aspects of peer support is reciprocity: it benefits both the receiver and provider of support. In the future, we will investigate how the activation of peer support can be promoted as part of interventions.

8. Emotional control promotes well-being and change.

Emotions are important in behavioural changes since they help us in motivation and decision making. However, emotions must be controlled appropriately: to fade down impeding emotions and to boost beneficial ones. Emotional control is part of self-regulation and also joint regulation. Sometimes it is enough that an emotion is recognised, sometimes more active efforts are needed, such as conscious calming down. Joint regulation, which is important for well-being, includes e.g. inspiring, encouraging, and consoling. In the ”Relational Mind” study, we investigate how and what kind of joint regulation takes place in marital therapy.

9. What does interpersonal synchrony mean for the establishment of a cooperation relationship?

Cooperation relationship is an essential factor with regard to the success of psychotherapy. A cooperation relationship is built subtly, as an interplay of verbal and nonverbal communication. Synchrony between the participants is connected to client experiences about the therapeutic cooperation relationship. We do not know yet whether such synchrony is a cause or a consequence of a good cooperation relationship. We need more specific knowledge about the role of synchrony in these settings. We also investigate how a cooperation relationship is established between several persons, for example in marital and family therapy and group interventions.

10. The quality of remote interaction can be improved.

Remote meetings are found straining in comparison to face-to-face meetings: Technical problems are common, and the lack of body language makes discussion less fluent. In the PhinGAIN study on professional guidance, we noticed that good interpersonal contacts were established by remote connections as well. The initial stages of discussions are important. A remote meeting should start in peace, constructing together a sense of presence with switching on the cameras and chatting with each other. Agreeing on the topics and aims makes it easier to accomplish a successful discussion. This promotes everybody’s interest in joining the discussion with their own voice.

Virpi-Liisa Kykyri

The research field of Associate Professor Virpi-Liisa Kykyri includes the basic processes underlying psychological well-being interventions and behavioural changes. She is also a docent of clinical psychology, especially interaction research, as well as a special psychologist of work and organisational psychology. In addition, she is a qualified vocational teacher.

Kykyri leads the Relational Mind research team as well as the PhinGAIN consortium project of the Universities of Jyväskylä and Oulu.

Research of behavioural change has long traditions at the University of Jyväskylä

Martin Hagger

Research of behavioural change and alteration is a new, rapidly developing field, where basic research seeks to shed light on the explanatory factors of health behaviour and develop methods by which behaviour could be modified and changed.

Such research has already long traditions at the University of Jyväskylä as well. A new feature is that the researchers are actively compiling, developing and testing a large range of theories, techniques and methods from different disciplines.

A founder of the BC-Well profiling area, Professor Martin Hagger is Professor of Behavior Change at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, as well as Professor of Health Psychology at the University of California.

His research applies social psychology theory to the prediction, understanding, and altering of health behaviour. Hagger is the other one of the so-called super-researchers of the University of Jyväskylä; his name is on the list of the world’s most referred researchers.

The Steering Group of this Profiling area consists of, in addition to Professor Hagger, Professor emerita Taru Lintunen, Professor Juha Holma, and Associate Professor Tiina Parviainen.

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