18th July 2011

Tom Webb wins ERC Starting Grant

Tom Webb has been awarded a prestigious ERC Starting Grant for a project entitled "'The ostrich problem': When and why people fail to monitor their goal progress and the development of a new focus for behaviour change interventions". The grant is for 755,082 Euros over four years. A lay summary of the research is below.

One of the most significant challenges facing science and society is how to promote lasting changes in people's behaviour. What kinds of interventions influence the behaviours that lead to obesity or persuade people to use less energy in their homes? The present proposal argues that one reason that people struggle to change is that they fail to monitor the relation between their current behaviour and their desired behaviour. For example, few people watch their weight, monitor their household energy consumption, check their bank balances, look at nutrition labels on food and so on. This active ignoring of information about one's current standing relative to one's goals -- termed here 'the ostrich problem' -- is part of popular culture, yet current scientific perspectives assume that people will actively monitor and seek information on their progress. As a consequence, theoretical frameworks fail to adequately describe and predict the outcomes of behaviour change efforts and current interventions fall short of promise.

The aim of the proposed research is to challenge the assumption made by current theoretical frameworks and to investigate the nature and implications of the ostrich problem. The research will seek to explain why the ostrich problem exists and test avenues for intervention. The research will also (i) develop new methodologies that will open up future research in this area (namely, a self-report measure of the extent to which people monitor their current standing and a new measure of implicit attitudes toward such monitoring) and (ii) apply established theories and methodologies in new contexts (namely, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, evaluative conditioning, the formation of implementation intentions, and self-affirmation). By so doing, the proposed research will lead to a step change in our understanding of how to empower individuals to make changes to their behaviour.