Changing Human Behavior to Prevent Disease: The Importance of Targeting Automatic Processes

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Science  21 Sep 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6101, pp. 1492-1495
DOI: 10.1126/science.1226918

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Much of the global burden of disease is associated with behaviors—overeating, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and physical inactivity—that people recognize as health-harming and yet continue to engage in, even when undesired consequences emerge. To date, interventions aimed at changing such behaviors have largely encouraged people to reflect on their behaviors. These approaches are often ineffectual, which is in keeping with the observation that much human behavior is automatic, cued by environmental stimuli, resulting in actions that are largely unaccompanied by conscious reflection. We propose that interventions targeting these automatic bases of behaviors may be more effective. We discuss specific interventions and suggest ways to determine whether and how interventions that target automatic processes can enhance global efforts to prevent disease.

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