Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Beach Bod or Big Mac? You decide!


Whilst it's not my career choice, the world of health and fitness has always fascinated me, in particular the role of a personal trainer. At first glance, it appears to be a pretty straightforward job, there is no real "secret" to weight loss other than a healthy, balanced diet and exercise, but the quick fix fads sure do make a lot of money. However, this begs the question, if weight loss is so easily attainable, for example -  a couple of apples and a quick run a day away, then how has the fitness industry boomed into a net worth of nearly £4 billion. The truth is, we pay for motivation, we pay for the discipline that comes with having a personal trainer, it's like a mummy but in the gym, the one that tells you off if you've eaten a doner kebab instead of if you've drawn on her walls with lipstick (personal experience).

The main aim of a personal trainer, according to Applied Behaviour Analysis, is to increase desired behaviours (losing weight, eating well, exercising regularly) and decrease undesired behaviours (eating junk food, not exercising, gaining weight). They achieve this outcome through applying reinforcers, some are naturally occurring, others are created. This concept, pioneered by Skinner (1963) would suggest that if a client has been reaching their gym attendance target, set by the personal trainer, they may be rewarded by verbal appraisals, for example, compliments on their appearance. This reinforcement could be further engrained by creating  a diary recording gym progress, if certain targets set by the trainer are met then the client may be rewarded in kind. Research suggests that obese participants who are striving towards the goal of weight loss, lose significantly more weight when they self reward as opposed to other strategies such as self monitoring (Mahoney, Moura & Wade, 1973).

When seeking to decrease undesired behaviours, a personal trainer may seek to reinforce undesired behaviours with negative consequences, for example, if a client turns up to a gym class with a cheeky McDonalds wrapper hanging out of their gym bag (let's assume they ate it and they don't just like litter picking), the personal trainer may punish them by increasing the intensity and duration of their workout, to make the client feel so physically exhausted and broken that a McDonald's Big Mac is terrifying and they never touch it again.


 Given the trade off, sticking to an exercise regime, receiving rewards for effort and recognition - as well as looking awesome, seems far more appealing than the momentary satisfaction of a Big Mac, a workout that would challenge Usain Bolt and of course, wearing a binbag instead of a bodycon because you feel self conscious. We know what we need to do, we just need a personal trainer to help us along our journey to reduce the behaviours that encourage our midnight scoffers and reinforce those promoting the Halle Berry beach bod!


Krishma Tangri


Mahoney, M. J., Moura, N. G. & Wade, T. C. (1973). Relative efficacy of self-reward, self-punishment, and self-monitoring techniques for weight loss. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 40, 404-407.

Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant behavior. American Psychologist18, 503.

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