Lifestyle change: values and volition 

Dr Katy Tapper

The project explored the potential utility of a new intervention approach designed to target motivation for health behaviour change. Research shows that although people may believe certain values to be important (eg equality and helpfulness), they are often unable to articulate why. They lack 'cognitive support' for the value which means that they tend to behave in accordance with the value only when it is relatively easy to do so. Levels of value-consistent behaviour can be increased by providing an opportunity for people to develop their cognitive support for the value.

This project explored the extent to which this also applied to the value of ‘health’. It examined (a) whether individuals have previously thought about why health is important to them, and (b) whether health intentions and behaviours can be influenced by providing individuals with cognitive support for the value of health (ie thinking about reasons for and against the value of health). The research involved recruiting community samples of participants who completed questionnaires and pen and paper based tasks and also the use of covert observational measures to assess health-related behaviours (eg the number of health promotion leaflets taken from a stand in a waiting room; whether the participant took the lift or the stairs to a subsequent appointment). In some instances, what participants were told about the purpose of the study or procedures differed from the true purpose (eg participants were told we were carrying out two separate studies on ‘modern living’ and taste perception, when we were actually looking at health related behaviours). 

Ethical issues

One of the key ethical issues with these studies was the use of deception, ie participants were actively misinformed about the purpose of the research or procedures (as opposed to simply being told that certain details would be withheld until the debrief). Deception is viewed as problematic for a number of reasons: participants may feel upset upon learning that they have been deceived; participants may not have consented to take part in the research had they been aware of its true purpose; the deception may undermine trust in the discipline, which may make it difficult for researchers to collect valid data in the future.

We strictly adhered to the Guidelines from the British Psychological Society (external website). These state that deception should only take place where (a) it is essential to achieve the research results required and where the research objective has strong scientific merit, (b) there is an appropriate risk management and harm alleviation strategy, (c) it is not likely to lead to discomfort, anger or objections among participants when revealed, (d) the study is designed in such a way that it protects the dignity and autonomy of participants.

The deception employed in the studies was considered necessary since describing the true purpose of the research/procedures would prime participants to think about health and/or invalidate the measures. To minimise the potential risk of harm, we used an interactive verbal debrief in which we explained the deception and the reasoning behind it. We solicited questions and comments from the participants, asking whether they minded that we hadn’t provided this information at the start of the study, while indicating that we would be happy to withdraw their data if they preferred. No participant requested that their data be withdrawn.

Taking the time to provide a verbal debrief and answer questions helps participants see that steps have been taken to accommodate their feelings and protect their integrity. We did not receive any objections to the deception; indeed, many participants expressed interest and amusement.

Lessons

  • When planning research that involves an element of deception, researchers should consider whether the deception is essential, and how its use may be minimised.
  • Using a carefully phrased verbal debrief and the opportunity to withdraw data, may help minimise the risks of deception by protecting the dignity and autonomy of participants. 
  • Explaining the reasons for the deception, and encouraging participants to ask questions may also help enhance user engagement.