It can be difficult to change health behaviours. Good intentions to quit smoking or drink less alcohol, for example, do not always translate into action – or, if they do, the change doesn’t last very long. A meta-analysis of meta-analyses suggests that intentions explain, at best, a third of the variation in actual behaviour change.  What else can be done?
One approach is to move from intentions to inattention. Quite automatically, people who regularly engage in a behaviour like smoking or drinking alcohol pay more attention to smoking and alcohol-related stimuli. To interrupt this process ‘cognitive bias modification’ (CBM) can be used.
Amongst academics, the results of CBM have been called “striking” (p. 464), prompted questions about how such a light-touch intervention can have such strong effects (p. 495), and led to the development of online CBM platforms.
An example of a CBM task for heavy alcohol drinkers is using a joystick to ‘push away’ pictures of beer and wine and ‘pull in’ pictures of non-alcoholic soft drinks. Alcoholic in-patients who received just an hour of this type of CBM showed a 13% lower rate of relapse a year later than those who did not – 50/108 patients in the experimental group and 63/106 patients in the control group.
Debate about the efficacy of CBM is ongoing. It appears that CBM is more effective when administered in clinical settings rather than in a lab experiment or online.
— Laura Kudrna, Research Fellow
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