Behaviour Change

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

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Manipulating Weight

Losing weight is an ever increasing want of females particularly, but also of males of today. As we look at countless adverts and pictures of photoshopped models strewn across the internet, magazines and TV we strive for that unrealistic body image we are constantly reminded is ‘sexy’. Because of this uncontrollable desire to be skinny there is a clear demand for new and better ways to lose weight. As a nutritionist there is a lot of money to be made for effective weight-loss strategies and this is where applied behaviour analysis comes in.

Applied behaviour analysis aims to increase desired behaviours (losing weight) and decrease undesired behaviours (gaining weight). Arguably the most effective solution to weight loss is to increase exercise and decrease calorific intake. Reinforcing desired behaviours can be done through a reward system – in this case the reward may be unprompted as weight loss itself provides the reward through others compliments and improvement in self-image. As a nutritionist you can aid this through a reward chart system for exercise, allowing certain treats during the diet for sticking to an exercise schedule. Mahoney, Moura and Wade (1973) assigned 53 obese participants to either self-reward, self-punishment, self-reward and punishment, self-monitoring or a control group during a weight loss study. At follow-up, they found that participants in the self-reward group had lost significantly more weight than self-monitoring or control groups. This continued; at four months they continued to show greater improvement and were better than the self-punishment groups. This study demonstrates effective techniques to improve desired behaviour in weight loss. As a nutritionist I will be rewarding positive behaviours such as exercise and a lower calorie intake.

Another technique that applied behaviour analysis teaches is negatively reinforcing undesired behaviours through punishment or extinction. However, as Mahoney, Moura and Wade (1973) found, punishing gaining weight or not reducing calories does not appear to be an effective strategy for weight loss. Therefore, as a nutritionist I will use Skinner’s (1963) ideas of positively reinforcing an efficient exercise routine through a reward chart system and lower calorific intake which will reinforce itself from a more positive self-image and others’ compliments. Gaining weight or remaining at the same weight will negatively reinforce itself through a more negative self-image and lack of compliments. Furthermore, holding group sessions will help positively reinforce desired behaviour as others can see the positive outcomes of sticking to a diet and exercise scheme and thus will encourage others to be more committed.

These techniques applied behaviour analysis suggests will help me help others alter behaviour and have a better body!


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(3), 404-407.

Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant behaviour. American Psychologist, 18, 503.

Eleanor Silk -  Blog 4

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