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Science Highlights

How to study and predict self-regulation? It’s harder than we thought

Chalkboard figures climbing ladders with the words Self-regulationOntologies – formal descriptions of concepts in a domain of study and the relationships among those concepts – can help us create a common language across disciplines and identify gaps in theory. Using ontologies to link how scientists think about and measure human behavior to observations of real-world outcomes is critical to making the study of human behavior broadly applicable. This is important because the results of current behavioral studies remain difficult to apply outside the narrow conditions of each individual study. The Science of Behavior Change program (SOBC) is working to change that by developing a shared framework for testing behavior change interventions, and ontologies could help.

Take, for example, the very basic notion of self-control or self-regulation. It has long been very appealing to think that many unhealthy behavioral patterns could be due to a deficit in a thing we could call “self-regulation.” But what exactly is that thing? Although self-regulation has been strongly connected to a wide range of real-world outcomes, such as academic performance, health, and economic well-being, the answer to this question is not completely clear.

In an important study, SOBC researchers used a data-driven approach to develop a psychological ontology of self-regulation by integrating data from a large number of participants. These participants were given a wide range of psychological measures believed to measure aspects of self-regulation, including behavioral tasks, self-report surveys, and self-reported real-world outcomes. The results indicated that although both task and survey measures of self-regulation were measuring something, there was little evidence that they were measuring one specific thing, and therefore much stronger evidence that self-regulation is not, in fact, one single thing. Moreover, the kinds of things measured by tasks that related to self-regulation were virtually unrelated to the kinds of things measured by survey questions. More interestingly, the ontology constructed in this study clarified how tasks and surveys relate to real-word behavior. Overall, performance on any specific behavioral task was only very weakly related to the real-world outcome it should have been associated with, whereas survey measures, performed moderately well. At least with regard to measuring self-regulation, this study challenges the conventional wisdom that “actions speak louder than words.” That is, people’s stated views of their self-regulatory abilities seem to relate more strongly to these abilities than action or task-based measures. This study clearly showed that the development of behavioral ontologies can benefit greatly from a data-driven approach. This investment to gather the required data helped reveal a greater connection between what people say than what they do with regard to how they actually behave. This has implications for how we might work to help them change how they behave.


The SOBC Research Network Expands by Adding 13 New Projects

Icons of pill, utensils, running, and DNAThe Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) Program is working to identify what underlies successful behavior change. Recently, 13 new projects have been funded in the SOBC Research Network, which take advantage of the resources being developed by the SOBC Program.

A lot of work has been done in the field of behavioral medicine to help people make healthy choices, and some of that work has been successful. The problem is that even when these efforts to help people change their behaviors are successful, we don’t know why or how they worked. To address this issue, the SOBC Research Network has been studying the mechanisms of behavior change using a series of tools that measure how behavioral interventions work. These measures and information about how they have been used by SOBC Research Network investigators are available at the SOBC Measures Repository.

The 13 new projects will leverage instruments in the SOBC Measures Repository to study the mechanisms of behavior change either within an ongoing clinical trial or as a new exploratory research project. These projects aim to influence a wide variety of health-related behaviors including medication adherence, physical activity, sleep habits, smoking, and drug dependence. Results from these studies will add to the knowledge base being generated by the SOBC Program by systematically testing how these measures perform in a variety of settings and populations.

Two awards were made to add an SOBC component to an existing clinical trial:

  • Victoria A. Catenacci, M.D.  – University of Colorado, Denver
  • Frank J. Penedo, Ph.D. and Michael Antoni, Ph.D. – Northwestern University

11 awards were made for exploratory studies using SOBC measures:

  • Jeffrey Birk, Ph.D.  – Columbia University
  • Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., - Brown University; and Elizabeth Hoge, M.D. – Georgetown University
  • Amy Gorin, Ph.D. and Tricia M. Leahey, Ph.D. – University of Connecticut
  • Allison Harvey, Ph.D. – University of California, Berkeley
  • Chanita Hughes-Halbert, Ph.D. – Medical University of South Carolina
  • Kristen Mackiewicz Seghete, Ph.D. – Oregon Health & Science University
  • R. Kathryn McHugh, Ph.D. – McLean Hospital
  • Michael W. Otto, Ph.D. – Boston University
  • Erica Scioli, Ph.D. – Boston University
  • Jeffrey Stein, Ph.D. – Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • Tracey E. Wilson, Ph.D.  – State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center

For more information on these projects, visit the NIH SOBC funded research page and the Columbia University SOBC Resource and Coordinating Center website.

An Overview of the NIH Common Fund's Science of Behavior Change Program

To learn more about the exciting research being done by SOBC investigators, check out the video below from the SOBC Resource and Coordinating Center's Dr. Jen Sumner. 

SOBC Behaviour Research and Therapy Special Issue

The SOBC Research Network authored a special issue of Behaviour Research and Therapy entitled “An experimental medicine approach to behavior change: The NIH Science Of Behavior Change (SOBC).” This special issue introduces exciting work currently underway within the SOBC Research Network. Papers included in this issue describe the SOBC mission and the work of its research teams. Some manuscripts provide contextual frameworks for these efforts, including a historical perspective from the NIH. Other papers describe study protocols and initial results for constituent projects, demonstrating how the experimental medicine approach can be applied to a wide range of questions in the behavior change field. The overarching goal of SOBC is to transform behavior change science by bringing a mechanism-focused approach to intervention development. These contributions demonstrate how systematic and rigorous methods that span basic and applied research can be implemented to help people live longer, healthier lives.


  • Behaviour Research and Therapy. February 2018: 101:1-108
    (Full access to the articles in this issue may require an institutional subscription.)

Financial Incentives can Increase the Effectiveness of Smoking Cessation Programs

Money and cigarettes

Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable illness and death despite the implementation of national policies, behavioral programs, and pharmacological treatments that have helped decrease smoking rates in the US. One promising line of research in smoking cessation relies on findings from the field of behavioral economics, which applies what we know about how people make health-related decisions to the design of health-behavior change interventions. Often, interventions informed by behavioral economics make use of financial incentives to encourage healthy behaviors and promote behavior change. Science of Behavior Change awardee Dr. Scott Halpern and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania report their findings that financial incentive programs can lead to sustained cessation of smoking, and that the structures of incentive programs are differentially efficacious. Moreover, these incentive programs were more effective than the usual method of care, which included informational resources and free smoking cessation aids.    

Study participants included CVS/Caremark employees or their relatives from across the US. After enrolling through a web-based research portal, participants were randomized into one of four incentive programs: individual reward, individual deposit, collaborative reward and collaborative deposit. The reward conditions differed by whether monetary rewards were paid based on individual or group success in smoking cessation, and by the initial, personal or collaborative monetary investment required of participants. The deposit conditions required individuals or groups to deposit some of their own money into an account that was enhanced by matched funds; they would get their own money back plus the additional funds if they successfully quit smoking, but lose their deposit and the additional funds if they were unsuccessful. The reward conditions did not require an initial investment of personal or collaborative funds, and so did not involve risk of loss of any participant’s own funds. Participants could opt out of assignment to any of the conditions, in which case they were re-assigned to another condition in the study. The logic behind the deposit conditions is that behavioral economics has shown that people are very motivated to avoid losses of their own funds; much more motivated than they are to gain rewards of the same or even larger size.    

Researchers found that all four incentive programs were effective in promoting sustained smoking abstinence. Perhaps not surprisingly, fewer participants accepted conditions that required them to deposit their own money as part of their reward. Those who did accept the deposit condition, however, were substantially more successful in quitting smoking than those who accepted conditions that did not require an initial deposit. Interestingly, although the collaborative reward conditions have sometimes been found to be more efficacious in spurring behavior change in the past, this was not the case in this study.    

Over all, this study underlined the fact that incentives-based programs can be very effective in helping people quit smoking, but the level of effectiveness depends on both the acceptability of intervention and structure of the incentive intervention. The deposit-based incentive intervention was far more efficacious for those who accepted it, but far less palatable to participants who were offered it. Future work in the area might target ways in which the acceptability of the more efficacious interventions could be increased, as well as increasing the efficaciousness of the interventions people are more likely to accept.       


  • A randomized trial of four financial incentive programs for smoking cessation. Halpern SD, French B, Small DS, Saulsgiver KA, Harhay MO, Audrain-McGovern J, Loewenstein G, Brennan TA, Asch DA, Volpp KG. N Engl J Med. 2015    
  • Read the Press Release  from Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Happiness Examined From the Molecular Level: New Study Findings Reveal a Link Between Well-Being, Health, and Our Genomes

Happiness Examined From the Molecular Level: New Study Findings Reveal a Link Between Well-Being, Health, and Our Genomes

AnchorA recent study, supported in part through the NIH Common Fund’s Science of Behavior Change program, examined the biological implications of well-being by analyzing the human genome. Well-being has been shown to predict long-term physical and mental health. However, well-being is complex in nature, and until this study it has not been examined at the molecular level. In this unique study of social genomics, the research team from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the University of California, Los Angeles examined a group of 80 healthy adults, using both questionnaires and blood samples, to track correlations between differences in gene expression in our immune systems and states of well-being. Well-being can be divided into two states: hedonic well-being is the sum of an individual’s positive affective experiences while eudaimonic well-being is derived from striving toward meaning and purpose. These two types of well-being are positively correlated, but the researchers discovered that there were distinct differences in their genetic regulation of activity in the cells of our immune systems despite their similar effect on overall well-being. While the findings are not able to resolve which type or what combination of well-being is more healthful, they do suggest specific genetic pathways that are involved in well-being and how they are controlled. The findings also demonstrate that there is a disassociation between molecular and affective well-being in the case of the simple hedonic (self-gratification) well-being, meaning that at times we may feel good but molecularly might not be helping ourselves. These thought-provoking findings suggest that human evolution has occurred in a way that helps us both survive and thrive in our environments through seeking well-being. Future research can work to define what specific sources of well-being best support health.


  • Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, Algoe SB, Firestine AM, Arevalo JM, Ma J, Cole SW. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Aug 13. PMID 23898182. For abstract click here.

A Forty Year Study: Self control behavior largely unchanged from childhood to adulthood

A Forty Year Study:  Self control behavior largely unchanged from childhood to adulthood

Temptation and self-regulation are issues that everyone experiences. However, a new research study funded in part by the NIH Common Fund’s Science of Behavior Change Program has now examined, in detail, delayed gratification responses in a group of subjects over the course of four decades. In their current study, the researchers selected a group of subjects now in their mid forties who were previously tested for delay-of- gratification responses in preschool. Their main objective was to examine the neural basis of self-regulation. In the ~60 subjects tested, the researchers found that those who performed poorly as preschoolers also showed similar performance levels throughout their 20s, 30s, and now 40s. The researchers showed that these “low delaying” participants performed more poorly than high delayers when having to suppress a response to a happy face but not to neutral or fearful faces, suggesting that sensitivity to specific types of cues plays an important role in one’s ability to suppress actions. The results show that impulse control is difficult only when the tested cue is alluring to the subject, highlighting that the behavioral response is specific to compelling cues. The study then went on to examine a smaller subset of the participants using functional imaging, something that had not been conducted on any of the subjects previously. Examining both high and low delayers using alluring cues, the authors showed consistent differences in brain circuitry responses. The findings of this study show that the delay-of-gratification test serves as a good method for examining motivational and control processes, which appear to be stable from preschool through adulthood.


  • Casey BJ, Somerville LH, Gotlib IH, Ayduk O, Franklin NT, Askren MK, Jonides J, Berman MG, Wilson NL, Teslovich T, Glover G, Zayas V, Mischel W, Shoda Y. Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Sep 6; 108(36): 14998-5003. PMID: 21876169.

This page last reviewed on April 12, 2024