You Have What It Takes to Get Healthy!

Submitted on May 26, 2010 - 2:30pm

An important factor in determining whether we are successful or not when undertaking a difficult endeavor is our own confidence that we have what it takes. Psychologists call this self-efficacy, a term coined by eminent Stanford University research psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura and other investigators have repeatedly shown that if you believe that you can accomplish something, it is much more likely that you will.

What is being suggested here is not some sort of magic. It is not an attempt to sell you the idea that if you can believe it, you can achieve it. That type of thinking is obviously incorrect. For example, a schoolboy might truly believe that he can run a mile in under four minutes, but an unfounded belief cannot alter true physical limitations. What is being suggested by self-efficacy theory is that if you really have the innate capability to do something, but you don't believe that you can do it, then you may unnecessarily fail!

Math lesson adds up

One experiment that Bandura and his colleague Dale Schunk conducted helps to demonstrate the importance of self-confidence. Students who were having difficulty in arithmetic were selected for special help. These students were each given a self-instruction booklet, which contained 42 pages of instruction and related exercises. Students were then randomly assigned to one of two experimental groups. In the first group, students were told that a reasonable goal was to try to complete the 42-page booklet by the end of seven study sessions (one study session per school day). We might describe this first group as being the One Big Goal Group because they were oriented towards thinking that the goal was to finish the entire booklet, rather than to work toward smaller subgoals.

In the second group, students were told that a reasonable goal would be to complete six pages of the booklet per study session for each of the seven days. We might describe this group as the "One Step at a Time Group." Other than these instructions, there were no differences in help given, answering of questions, or any other difference in the treatment of the two groups. Because students were randomly assigned to one of the two groups, there were no initial differences in overall ability between the two groups.

Bandura and Schunk suspected that they were helping the students in the "One Step" group by mentally breaking up the overall goal into smaller goals. They therefore expected that these students would gain confidence by taking the overall task just one section at a time. The authors expected that these students would work harder, persevere more often through difficulties, and ultimately learn and achieve more than students assigned to the "One Big Goal" group.
One step at a time

The results were clear, and astounding. On an achievement test used to measure students, mastery of the material, those in the "One Step at a Time Group" substantially outperformed the "One Big Goal Group." The average student in the "One Step at a Time" group was able to obtain an 80% score on a mastery test, whereas the average student in the "One Big Goal" group was only able to answer 40% of the problems correctly. Just as important, students in the "One Step at a Time" group wound up with much greater ratings of self-confidence, and were much more likely to persevere when a difficult problem was presented! The reason for the differences between the two groups was that students in the "One Step" group were much more likely to methodically work their way through the instruction booklet, and thus developed greater mastery.

These results give us clear evidence of an important insight into human motivation. If a problem seems "too big," we often won't stick with it, and lose our confidence. Alternatively, if we can find creative ways to chop big problems into a series of smaller ones, our confidence, motivation, and efforts, and thus our results, can improve dramatically.
Obstacles to healthful living

Living a healthful lifestyle in the modern environment can present a formidable challenge. There are several major types of obstacles in our way, each of them alone being enough to knock us off course. One of the most important of these types of obstacles is what we refer to collectively as channel factors. These are factors in our real-life situations that can make it more difficult for us to actually do the sorts of health-promoting behaviors that we intend to do.

Channel factors can be surprisingly important in either promoting or derailing behavioral intentions. For example, when soliciting business by mail, one of the most important factors is whether the business owner includes a postage-paid envelope! No matter if what is being sold costs over $100, and the additional cost of the stamp to the potential customer is negligible, the would-be customers are much less likely to buy if they have to go to the slight additional effort of finding a stamp.

With health behavior, these "channel factors" are almost always in opposition to our good intentions. The most convenient, and most socially acceptable, foods are usually the least healthful. Eating wisely usually requires more planning, more time and energy, and some additional skill development. In addition, because healthful foods can take longer to prepare, we often face a longer period of time between the impulse to eat and when we actually start eating.

With all of these forces pushing against us, it is little wonder that our best intentions often fall short. The greatest danger, however, lies not in our short-term failures. The most critical damage that these "Channel factor" problems can cause is the damage to our self-confidence! When our good intentions are consistently derailed, we can start to believe that we simply "don't have what it takes" to live healthfully. To adopt this belief would be a serious mistake.
Personality and behavior

One of the most important discoveries in social science in the past few decades has been the finding that people believe too strongly that personality differences are responsible for the behavioral differences they see between individuals.

By contrast, people typically underestimate the importance of situational forces that give rise to individual behavior. This can be a dangerous error when it comes to health behavior. People often think that if they have failed to live healthfully, the reason is that they lack some essential personality characteristic!

They may feel they are a "bad" or a "weak" person. They often fail to appreciate that subtle situational forces have conspired to disrupt their efforts. This belief that personality characteristics are the key feature in determining behavior can act like an optical illusion. It can cause us to make mistakes about how reality really works, and lead us to underestimate the importance of paying attention to situational influences. An example may help to illustrate this "personality" versus "situation" illusion.

Personality vs. situations

If you were trying to get college students to contribute to a canned food drive, which would be the most important task: finding people with helpful personalities, or creating situational forces that would make contributions more likely? Professor Lee Ross and his colleagues at Stanford attempted to find out, and the results of their investigation are instructive.

Their study was designed to examine both personality and situational factors in determining behavior, and also to examine which of these two types of factors is most important. The researchers divided students into four groups and studied their responses to a common request: to contribute to a canned food drive.

How the study worked

Students were asked to nominate their classmates for either one of two groups. One group was for those considered "most likely" to contribute to a canned food drive. The other was for those considered "least likely" to contribute. Once the nominations were completed, the investigators divided each of these groups in half. One half of the "most likely" students was assigned to an "assisted" group (group 1), the other half to an "unassisted" group (group 2). The same procedure was carried out with the "least likely" students (groups 3 and 4). (See Chart 1.)

The students in the two "assisted" groups were provided with specific situational forces designed to make it easier for them to contribute. Each student received a letter that addressed him or her by name; they were given specific instructions as to what foods were being requested; and they were given the address and a map to where the contributions could be dropped off. In addition, these students were given a "reminder" phone call during the week of the event. All of these factors were designed to facilitate behavior, rather than to impede it.

By contrast, the students in the two "unassisted" groups were provided with general information designed to make it slightly more difficult to contribute, so that the likelihood of contributing would be based primarily on their personalities. These students also were sent a letter, but this letter was merely addressed to "Dear Student," and there were no specific recommendations about which foods to bring. Likewise, the address to where the contributions could be dropped off was listed, but no map was provided. Finally, no "reminder" phone call was placed. These situational factors were designed to subtly impede contributing behavior.

Student predictions

How do you think each of the various groups contributed? The results may surprise you. They certainly surprised students who were asked the same question.

Students, none of whom were in any of the four groups, were apprised of the study's design. Afterwards, they were asked to make their best guess as to what percentage of subjects in each group would contribute to the food drive. A lot can be learned from their predictions. (See Chart 2.)

Students predicted that 82% of the students in the "most likely/assisted" group would contribute. They predicted that 80% of the students in the "most likely/unassisted" group would contribute. By contrast, they predicted that only 17% of the students in the "least likely/assisted" group would contribute, and that 16% of the "least likely/unassisted" group would contribute.

Clearly, these predictions indicate that students believed that personality factors, and not situational "channel" factors, were by far the most important issues in predicting behavior! The students showed almost no consideration for the situational forces that might be at play. Instead, they believed that the "most likely" students could reasonably be expected to contribute, regardless of situation, about 80% of the time. Likewise, they predicted that the "least likely" students would contribute about 16-17% of the time, regardless of situational forces. The students guessed wrong.
Surprising results

The results were much different than most people would reasonably predict. (See Chart 3.) Students considered "most likely" to help who were in the "assisted" group contributed only 42% of the time. Furthermore, students considered "most likely" to help who were in the "unassisted" group contributed a mere 8% of the time. Just as surprising were the results for "least likely" students. Those in the "assisted" group contributed a remarkable 25% of the time, while those in the "unassisted" group contributed 0% (that's right, zero percent) of the time.

These results provide a terrific example of not only the importance of situational forces in behavior, but also serve to highlight our natural tendency to overestimate personality factors in behavior. Note that the results show that the so-called "least likely" to help students in the "assisted" group were more than three times more likely to contribute than the "most likely" to help students in the "unassisted" group. The message is clear: situational forces are very powerful, and underestimated, sources of influence in our behavior.
You do have what it takes!

In my work as the psychologist for the TrueNorth Health Center, one of my main tasks is to help patients understand our most fundamental psychological message: You have what it takes to live healthfully! Not uncommonly, patients come to the Center after a period of getting off track, to get a period of rest, healing, and psychological rejuvenation. Often, when patients are nearing the end of their stay, they become concerned that they may somehow be missing some special characteristic, some kind of personality magic, that separates those who seem to keep on track from those who stumble.

An important task we have at the Center is to convince each patient that the power to live healthfully is already in his or her own hands. The "Big Goal" is to live healthfully, and that may seem overwhelming, and perhaps beyond one's capacities. But we take pains to explain and convince our patients that the "Big Goal" is just a target, and that it is really made up of a series of little goals. For example, getting used to fixing oatmeal and fruit for breakfast; planning a weekly menu; preparing a permanent shopping list to help make shopping and meal planning less mentally taxing; and carrying healthful snacks in your car so that you have something to help you resist the "pull" of unhealthful convenience snacks. Likewise, you can plan to do a "big cooking" once or twice a month, when you make soups and other entrees in bulk, and freeze some of the extra food for later convenience.
Reason for confidence

If you have struggled and stumbled from time to time on your way to healthful living, take heart! There is no "personality part" that you are missing that you must somehow cultivate. You don't need a year of group therapy, or some special psychiatric "self-discipline" pill. You already have what it takes to make your healthful lifestyle happen.

When you stumble, pay attention to what small factors conspired to defeat you, and steel yourself to find a solution. Piece by piece, and battle by battle, you can put together a winning formula. Don't think that a bad day or a bad week means that you don't have what it takes to succeed.

You do have what it takes. And you will discover this if you will just have a bit of patience with yourself, and keep at it, one step at a time.