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20. Engagement as a Tool for Sustaining Change
Even when we recognize the need for change, it can be extremely difficult to stick with a new behavior. We can think about the popular but notoriously unreliable ritual of setting New Year’s resolutions to get a rich source of examples as well as some clues about the strategies that people frequently employ when trying to change their behavior. One common approach is to call on willpower to tough it out, buckle down, and resist temptations. Unfortunately, this strategy tends to have little staying power, since it requires continuous effort and demands that we somehow overcome the many obstacles and distractions that stand in the way of making a change.
Another common strategy is to make the outcomes associated with the task more salient. This often involves emphasizing the benefits that result from doing an activity or providing incentives for successful performance. While reminding oneself of potential positive or negative outcomes and giving oneself rewards may be sufficient in some cases, both anecdotal and research literature suggest that such approaches are unlikely to help us maintain behavioral changes in the long term (Abrahamse, Steg, Vlek, & Rothengatter, 2005; De Young, 2000; Ingledew, Markland, & Medley, 1998; Morgan & Dishman, 2001). Why do these conventional approaches so often lead to disappointment, and, more important, are there alternative strategies that might fare better?
The Reasonable Person Model (RPM) offers us some important clues about how we might answer these questions and craft environments that are more supportive of our behavior change efforts. The fact that humans are drawn so strongly to settings that support exploration and discovery suggests that it may be particularly useful to get people more actively engaged in the behavior change process. While this might seem straightforward, there are obstacles to this approach as well. A great many behaviors (e.g., exercising, making dietary changes, conserving energy) are often not perceived as interesting and engaging. The challenge thus is to figure out how to transform a relatively unexciting task into an activity that is more cognitively engaging. Once these normally uninteresting behaviors become more engaging, it is likely that they could be sustained more easily.
What Is Engagement?
If our goal is to help individuals transform their behavior change efforts, then it would be useful to know what makes a task engaging. As it turns out, the answer is surprisingly complex. Research on engagement is both diffuse and overlapping, involving many other concepts such as interest, curiosity, intrinsic motivation, and attention. Early work by Berlyne (1960) proposed that features such as novelty, complexity, uncertainty, and conflict were responsible for generating feelings of interest. More recently, Silvia (2006) built on these ideas and proposed that feelings of curiosity and interest arise in situations where individuals experience both high novelty and a high potential for making sense. There is also reason to believe that engagement is more likely when activities are personally relevant and involve fascinating processes such as social interaction, problem solving, and nature-based exploration (Bergin, 1999). In addition, researchers have suggested that engaging activities tend to support autonomy and enhance feelings of effectiveness and competence (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Sansone & Morgan, 1992; Tsai, Kunter, Ludtke, Trautwein, & Ryan, 2008).
When we step back, it becomes clear that these characteristics share a great deal in common with the informational needs related to gaining knowledge, being competent, and making a difference described in Basu and Kaplan (Chapter 1). This raises the possibility that efforts to facilitate engagement might also contribute to reasonableness. For instance, strategies that encourage engagement could aid model building by making learning more intrinsically rewarding, could enhance effectiveness by reducing demands on scarce attentional resources, and could promote meaningful action by emphasizing active involvement in problem solving. Existing research supports this notion, linking engaging experiences to increases in attentional focus, cognitive processing, and positive affect (Blumenfeld, Kempler, & Krajcik, 2006; Hidi, 2000; Hidi & Renninger, 2006; Wild, Kuiken, & Schopflocher, 1995)—outcomes that would likely complement efforts to support reasonableness.
How Can Engagement Be Encouraged?
Most of us are regularly confronted with a variety of important but fairly tedious activities that take place in environments that do not fully support our plans and intentions. At other times the environment seems to conspire against us by offering fascinating distractions that make it harder for us to get things done. Maintaining behavior under these all too common conditions can be difficult at best; the things we must do often lack sufficient interest, and the settings are unsupportive.
That is not to say, however, that such activities cannot be engaging or that behavioral settings cannot promote effectiveness. Instead, it suggests that the individual may need to take a more active role in transforming these normally unsupportive situations into more fascinating and enlightening experiences. Examples of such techniques, or engagement strategies, involve learning how to use our sense modalities and experience the environment differently in an effort to become more aware of the external environment, become more sensitive to unanticipated outcomes, and craft small experiments.
Become more aware of the external environment. While many activities take place in what we consider to be well-known settings, numerous features of these familiar environments often go unnoticed. This suggests that one strategy for facilitating engagement may involve finding ways to better exploit existing environmental stimuli (Suedfeld, 1981). Abram Kaplan (Chapter 17) highlights the important role that art can play in this process by shifting our perspectives and helping us to see the world differently. Leff (1984) has also proposed this could be done through the use of “awareness plans,” deliberate strategies for how to select and process information in the environment (Leff & Gordon, 1979; Leff, Thousand, Nevin, & Quiocho, 2002). These awareness plans, presented in Table 20.1, attempt to influence engagement by encouraging us to perform a more detailed investigation of the environment or adopt a more playful, curious orientation.
|Focus on your senses||Focus on sounds. If the area is quiet, listen to the silence. If the area is full of sounds, focus on each one and notice how they differ.|
|Take on a new job or role||Imagine you’re an artist looking for beauty in everyday things.|
|Make guesses or inferences||How would this area be different if everyone had to grow their own food?|
|Use magic||If you could cast spells to alter the environment, what would you change?|
Conducting a more detailed exploration of a setting can be a useful strategy, since the environment may not always provide a large number of obviously compelling stimuli. Awareness plans encourage a more active search within the setting and allow us to pick up on the subtle but potentially fascinating details that could easily be overlooked. Adopting a more playful, curious orientation toward experience is valuable as well because it allows us to reinterpret the environment and experience it in new ways. Awareness plans support this process by asking the individual to experience the environment from a different perspective and use this new outlook to evaluate or make predictions about various aspects of the setting.
Become more sensitive to unanticipated outcomes. Our willingness to continue performing an activity is often influenced by how quickly we gain an expected benefit. If these benefits are perceived as small or too difficult to obtain, we may be tempted to stop participating. Focusing on one specific outcome can also limit our ability to explore and build models by causing us to ignore other positive but less obvious consequences. Identifying and recognizing these unanticipated outcomes can provide us with more reasons to stick with a difficult behavior. For instance, we might start an outdoor walking routine to lose weight but may find that this activity provides us with opportunities to meet neighbors and relax after work.
Strategies that encourage keeping track of short- and long-term physical, psychological, social, and environmental outcomes can make performing an activity more engaging and meaningful. Reflecting on our experiences may also help us to learn new things about ourselves and discover more reasons to continue taking action.
Craft small experiments. Small experiments are an engagement strategy that encourages us to try things out and see what happens. Although people often undertake activities without knowing exactly how they will turn out, it is unusual to think of these efforts as experiments. As a consequence, we are unlikely to make a conscious effort to test different options and track the results (S. Kaplan, 1990). This means that many times we are relatively unaware as to why a particular course of action results in success or failure.
Efforts to become more actively engaged in a task by crafting small experiments require trying out different ways of performing an activity and tracking the results of these efforts so we can determine what works (R. Kaplan, 1996). In addition to encouraging cognitive engagement, this approach may also make it easier to deal with potential challenges, since the emphasis here is on testing things for a short time and seeing what happens rather than on making big, dramatic changes (Irvine & Kaplan, 2001).
Editors’ Comment: Like all small experiments, the feedback loop (i.e., “seeing what happens”) is what helps us make appropriate adjustments to our mental models.
Research by Sansone and colleagues on interest and self-regulation supports the notion that we can employ specific techniques to make performing boring tasks more enjoyable (Sansone & Harackiewicz, 1996; Sansone & Smith, 2000; Sansone, Weir, Harpster, & Morgan, 1992). This research, however, has tended to focus on using strategies that introduce a source of interest that is unrelated to the activity. For instance, this might involve turning an activity into a game (e.g., racing against the clock) or becoming engaged in some new stimuli while doing the behavior (e.g., listening to music). Although these interest-enhancing strategies are useful in some situations and can serve to promote engagement, the engagement strategies proposed here may offer a number of distinct advantages.
Interest-enhancing strategies that attempt to turn an activity into a game place the burden of initiating and maintaining engagement wholly on the individual. As a consequence, performance can become highly dependent on the amount of effort one is willing and able to put forth. By contrast, engagement strategies such as awareness plans and small experiments allow the setting to bear some of this burden. This is not to say that actively attending to the environment is effortless; however, this process should become less demanding as we detect interesting stimulus patterns. Through the small experiments approach, we can also identify those engagement strategies that better leverage features of a behavior setting. Initial creation and testing of many plans may take some effort, but later use of the more successful plans may be less burdensome. In addition, it is useful to recognize that games impose constraints and rules that may not be sensitive to the constraints (or opportunities) present in the behavior setting. For instance, a game may lose much of its initial appeal once the task needs to be performed repeatedly over a significant period of time. This suggests that a more flexible, open approach that considers the constraints inherent to the situation may be more helpful for sustaining behavior.
Some interest-enhancing strategies can also be problematic because they may not allow us to gain new insights about an activity. Listening to music or talking with a friend may temporarily make an activity less tedious, but these strategies are unlikely to help us learn how to deal with current or future obstacles. Engagement strategies that encourage the tracking of unexpected outcomes or the crafting of small experiments are more likely to help us discover multiple reasons for doing a behavior and explore a wider variety of ways to support its performance. The feedback we receive from these efforts can also provide important information about how to sustain a behavior or restart it in the future.
Using Engagement to Improve Traditional Approaches
Now that we have a better idea about what engagement is and how it might be facilitated, it is worth thinking about whether standard efforts to change behavior take full advantage of the engagement process. This requires that we examine the assumptions and strategies of traditional behavior change efforts more closely. Standard approaches for the most part have assumed that people lack the knowledge, skills, and motivation necessary to take action. As a consequence, behavioral interventions largely focus on providing information about the benefits of taking action (or the consequences of not acting) and offering procedural guidance on how to carry out the behavior. In some cases, these interventions also supply incentives (or disincentives) to encourage performance. This means that many traditional interventions tend to be fairly prescriptive in nature and are primarily concerned with helping individuals initiate behavior. On one hand, this approach makes a good deal of sense since it reduces uncertainty and provides people with a structured plan of action. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that such approaches may have significant limitations. The engagement strategies outlined above may allow us to deal with these shortcomings and offer several additional benefits as well (Table 20.2).
|Features||Connections to the Reasonable Person Model|
Increasing Opportunities for Exploration
The goal of many standard behavior change interventions is to give people detailed instructions about what to do and how to do it. While this may be a useful way to build familiarity, such approaches fail to recognize some important aspects of how humans learn. Both Rachel Kaplan (Chapter 2) and Eric Ivancich (Chapter 5) point out that in many situations, people prefer to explore at their own pace issues that are personally relevant rather than be forced to follow a prescribed process. This preference makes sense once we recognize that it takes both time and effort to integrate new information into our existing knowledge structure. Engagement strategies are able to support this gradual exploration of new information because they allow us to have more choices regarding how we carry out behaviors and interact with the environment. Efforts to encourage deeper levels of engagement, through techniques such as small experiments, may also help us learn new things about ourselves and gain insights about our own interests and abilities.
As Table 20.3 shows, limited opportunities for exploration can have undesirable outcomes whether the situation is relatively familiar or not. Unfamiliar situations that offer limited opportunities for exploration are likely to cause withdrawal. Under these conditions, not only is it difficult to make predictions, but we may also feel incapable of figuring out how to make progress, potentially resulting in feelings of helplessness. Highly familiar situations, however, may not be ideal either if they do not leave room for exploration. Under such conditions we may have the knowledge and skills required, but without the opportunity to test these skills or apply knowledge in new ways, the result may be feelings of boredom. Increasing the opportunities for exploration can improve either of these situations. When familiarity is lacking, engagement strategies that allow us to experiment and try things out slowly can generate curiosity and are more likely to lead to sustained involvement. In high-familiarity contexts, situations that present opportunities for exploration permit us to use our talents and test our skills in different ways, thereby encouraging resourcefulness and creativity. Many chapters in this volume speak directly to the role that exploration plays by describing the powerful impacts that can result when environments either support or thwart these strong human inclinations (e.g., Ginsburg, Chapter 9; Kumler, Chapter 18; and Wells & Pillemer, Chapter 10).
|LOW EXPLORATION||HIGH EXPLORATION|
|LOW FAMILIARITY||( − ) Withdrawn||( + ) Curious|
|I don’t know about this and I can’t figure it out.||I’m not sure about this, but I want to learn more.|
|HIGH FAMILIARITY||( − ) Bored||( + ) Resourceful/Creative|
|This old stuff again.||This is a chance to use/test what I know in a new way.|
These outcomes suggest that engagement strategies can also complement many standard efforts to increase competence. Interventions that focus on providing procedural guidance about how to carry out a specific behavior are often only concerned with helping individuals learn basic skills. However, individuals may want opportunities to refine and sharpen these skills. Engagement strategies might facilitate this process by encouraging us to try a variety of ways to carry out a behavior. Developing this broader range of behavioral options may make it easier to make adjustments when circumstances change or new challenges arise.
Expanding the Role of Motivation
Traditional behavior change approaches are almost exclusively concerned with manipulating the extrinsic motives that result from achieving some personally valued outcome, such as losing weight or gaining a monetary reward. While increasing the salience of expected outcomes may be a good way to initiate behavior, the literature suggests that it is a less effective strategy for encouraging long-lasting behavior change (Abrahamse et al., 2005; De Young, 2000; Ingledew et al., 1998; Morgan & Dishman, 2001). In fact, there is evidence that concentrating on extrinsic motives can actually undermine other reasons that individuals might have for performing a behavior (Lepper, Green, & Nisbett, 1973). Based on these findings, it seems reasonable to question how motivation is employed in many standard interventions.
Motivation does not only come from the desire to achieve some highly valued end state. People continuously evaluate what is going on around them; their evaluations of the current experience can have a powerful influence on whether they choose to maintain a behavior or take similar actions in the future, regardless of the potential future costs or benefits (S. Kaplan, 1991). These moment-to-moment evaluations may become particularly important in situations where valued outcomes are less tangible or are difficult to obtain. This suggests that we should be concerned about what happens while an individual is involved in carrying out the behavior.
Engagement strategies are well equipped to address this concern, since they are intended to promote greater ongoing cognitive involvement in the current experience and generate feelings of interest, enjoyment, curiosity, and playfulness (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Webster & Ho, 1997). These feelings of positive affect are important, since behaviors that are experienced as pleasurable and enjoyable are more likely to be maintained over time (Buckworth, Lee, Regan, Schneider, & DiClemente, 2007; Curry, Wagner, & Grothaus, 1990; De Young, 1986; Gottfried, Marcoulides, Gottfried, & Oliver, 2009). Research also indicates that engagement strategies may be capable of making an experience more intrinsically motivating. For instance, Sansone and colleagues (Sansone & Thoman, 2005; Sansone et al., 1992) have found that altering a behavior to make it more engaging can transform a relatively boring task into a more enjoyable experience. These findings also indicate that continued use of these strategies can lead to redefining an activity more positively, thereby increasing the likelihood that one will stick with the task and carry it out again in the future.
The ineffectiveness of standard approaches might also be due to their failure to recognize the important role that self-regulation plays in behavior change efforts. Dealing effectively with informational challenges, such as learning how to carry out a behavior, monitoring performance, or sustaining a new behavioral pattern, requires us to draw on attentional resources that are finite and fatigable (S. Kaplan & Berman, 2010; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). The mental fatigue that results from depleting these attentional resources makes it even harder to initiate and stick with tasks that are not especially interesting (Basu, Chapter 6). Once again, the introduction of engagement strategies may be useful, reducing the amount of mental effort needed to carry out these normally problematic behaviors.
Awareness plans, for instance, can help us to notice subtle content that could be quite fascinating. This strategy can also help us to make more sense of the environment—a process that is often both extremely interesting and highly motivating (S. Kaplan, 1982). Awareness plans that encourage exploration and discovery by evaluating various aspects of a setting or making predictions about what has happened in the past (or could happen in the future) have the potential to effortlessly capture and hold our attention. Likewise, small experiments may allow us to more easily recognize environments that are compatible with our goals and intentions. Being able to find supportive settings or cope with unsupportive ones should ease the burden on attentional resources and enable us to be more effective. Thus, while learning to engage in the environment requires some effort, it also draws on many features that can preserve attentional resources (Sullivan, Chapter 4).
Additionally, incorporating engagement strategies may improve traditional interventions by providing people with more opportunities to participate and do things that matter. Strategies that help us to see beyond a narrow set of expected benefits and explore a broader range of less obvious physical, psychological, social, and environmental outcomes have the potential to make performing a particular behavior more important and meaningful. Recognizing these multiple reasons for performing a behavior may be a critical factor in determining whether we continue to take action in the future (Clary & Snyder, 1999; De Young, 2000; Frederick & Morrison, 1996; Lepper & Henderlong, 2000).
Strategies that encourage testing different ways of performing a behavior or interacting with the environment may also allow us to become more actively involved in decision making. These efforts to facilitate participation may reduce feelings of helplessness and create an atmosphere of respect. Both awareness plans and small experiments provide modest, flexible ways to become more involved in carrying out a behavior. Rather than prescribe a specific course of action, these strategies are sensitive to the fact that what works for one person or in one setting may not work for another. This, of course, means that we must try things out in order to see what works. The results of these efforts can also prompt reflection and sharing insights with others, both strong indicators that our involvement matters (S. Kaplan, 1990).
Applications and Future Directions
While engagement strategies appear to offer a number of advantages over traditional interventions and seem to make sense from a theoretical perspective, this approach is only useful if it turns out to have practical value. In an effort to explore this question, it seems sensible to examine how engagement strategies might be used to help people adopt and maintain a number of normally challenging behaviors.
Some of my own recent work has attempted to use awareness plans to help individuals initiate and sustain outdoor physical activity routines. This has involved comparing the impacts of a standard intervention that consists of creating and committing to a walking schedule with an engagement-based approach that uses awareness plans to make the experience more interesting. Results from this research have shown that engagement-based approaches are not only capable of supporting walking behavior (Duvall, 2012) but also help people have a richer, more positive experience. More specifically, participants who used awareness plans while walking were much more likely to report increases in psychological well-being (Duvall, 2011) and more positive feelings about the walking environment (Duvall, 2013). Taken together, these findings suggest that strategies designed to encourage more active engagement with the environment can enhance the walking experience itself and alter our perceptions of the behavior setting.
While more research is needed, findings from this work raise the possibility that engagement strategies may be useful for addressing other health behaviors as well, such as altering eating habits. In fact, studies suggest that strategies designed to help people be mindful of unexpected outcomes, such as improvements to psychological well-being or body-related attitudes, may be more effective than interventions that focus on more common outcomes, such as weight loss (Nauta, Hospers, & Jansen, 2001; Wardle, 1995). Engagement strategies may also be a useful approach for generating small experiments, since many individuals who have trouble sustaining healthy eating habits experience feelings of helplessness (Carmody, Brunner, & St. Jeor, 1995). Strategies that encourage people to become engaged by making small, temporary changes and tracking the results of their efforts may be more appealing than interventions targeting significant lifestyle changes.
Engagement strategies could also be useful to address conservation behaviors, such as reducing personal vehicle use. Thus far, traditional efforts focused on increasing the use of public transportation, encouraging more active modes of transportation (i.e., walking, biking), and changing driving behavior (e.g., carpooling or consolidating car trips) have not been particularly effective (Katzev, 2003; Ogilvie, Egan, Hamilton, & Petticrew, 2007). Introducing strategies that allow people to become more actively involved and engaged in these behaviors offers an interesting way forward. Awareness plans like the ones used to encourage outdoor walking could be useful in this situation. Choosing to walk or bike rather than drive gives one many more opportunities to notice and reinterpret features of the local environment, potentially resulting in a much more interesting and rewarding transportation experience.
Editors’ Comment: This approach shows how engagement can help us build a mental model of our own emotional responses.
Efforts to reflect and track positive outcomes may also be useful. For instance, using alternative modes of transportation or changing driving habits may help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety that can often be associated with commuting (Novaco, Stokols, & Milanesi, 1990; Schaeffer, Street, Singer, & Baum, 1988). Engagement strategies that encourage taking notice of how these stressful feelings impact job performance or social interactions may help individuals recognize the unanticipated benefits of altering their transportation behavior. Likewise, they may notice that using alternative modes of transportation results in improved fitness or more familiarity with their neighborhood. In addition, small experiments could be valuable, since changing well-established habits associated with car use can be challenging. Encouraging people to try out different alternatives may make them more willing to take action in spite of these obstacles.
Enriching Everyday Experience
The use of engagement strategies is by no means limited to behaviors that may have some urgency to the individual, such as health and conservation. This approach is applicable to many typically unexciting everyday behaviors. Activities such as cleaning the house, washing the dishes, going grocery shopping, or weeding the garden can seem quite unappealing and onerous. However, each of these tasks could be made more interesting and enjoyable if we decided to become more actively engaged. This suggests that learning how to become engaged may have not only positive social and environmental impacts but also the potential to enrich everyday experience.
Traditional behavior change efforts that provide us with information about why we should make a change and detailed instructions about how to take action are certainly useful when we lack a coherent mental model. However, as we confront new challenges and try to sustain these new behavioral patterns, it often becomes clear that these standard approaches are insufficient. Providing people with a prescribed plan of action may be comforting early on, but it leaves little room for exploration and fails to acknowledge that both the environmental context and individual differences can often play an important role. What’s more, these traditional approaches that advise us to focus on a narrow set of predefined and sometimes distant outcomes ignore the affective experience while we are actually doing the behavior. Given the strong influence that our emotional experience can have on decision making, increasing positive affect can have long-lasting impacts (Loewenstein & Lerner, 2003).
What is needed appears to be an approach that is more compatible with the various informational needs identified by RPM. Fortunately, efforts to foster cognitive engagement offer an appealing way forward. Engagement-based approaches that encourage us to become more involved in the task itself or in the behavior can facilitate the type of exploratory and self-paced learning essential to model building. When behaviors are more engaging, they are likely to be easier to sustain and reinitiate since feelings of fascination and interest become directly associated with taking action. By promoting participation and helping us discover new and unexpected behavioral outcomes, engagement strategies may also allow us to consider a wider variety of potential motivations.
The notion of engagement provides a fairly simple, flexible, and inexpensive way to make existing interventions more effective. It also invites further research to answer many questions that relate to context (e.g., problematic health behaviors, conservation approaches, and educational settings) as well as logistics (e.g., small experiments and approaches to tracking outcomes). Such research can provide additional insights about the advantages of this underutilized but potentially powerful approach.
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