The Role of Identity in Influencing Change (Part 3)

In this series of blog posts about the role of identity in behaviour change, I have explained the role of identity in changing behaviour, and given you an example of using group identity to change behaviour. This blog post focuses on another example of using identity to change behaviour, this time targeted at teenage eating habits.

Initiatives to help reduce junk food consumption are especially important for children – prevention is better than cure in this context because obesity is so difficult to treat. Unfortunately, while health education in the classroom has shown some success among young children, adolescents have been notoriously hard to reach.

But now a large-scale study has tried an innovative approach to change teenagers’ attitudes towards healthy eating. In it, researchers cleverly exploited teenagers’ instinct for rebelliousness and autonomy, and the value they place on social justice. It was therefore all about focusing on their identity as teenagers.

The researchers recruited over 500 teenagers and randomly assigned them to three groups. One group focused on a traditional public health appeal. One was a no-treatment control group, and the last group received an innovative intervention that played to their identity.

This group were given an article on the food industry. It talked about the manipulative and deceptive strategies used to make junk food more addictive and to portray the products as healthy. It also included pictures of executives and consultants of the food industry, described as stereotypical “controlling, hypocritical adult[s]”. The hope was that these adolescents would now see choosing healthy foods as an act of autonomy and independence – playing into their identity as teenagers.

The article also explained how advertising campaigns specifically target very young and poor people, causing harm for these vulnerable groups. The researchers hoped that healthy eating could be perceived as a rebellion for social injustice.

Afterwards, the participants in this condition read a (fictitious) survey of older adolescents who wanted to “fight back against the companies by buying and eating less processed food”. Finally, these participants wrote an essay summarising why they thought people were outraged and how to rebel against the food industry – the idea was to make sure that the teenagers made the message their own.

After the intervention, participants associated healthy eating with autonomy and social justice. They also rated healthy eating as being more appealing. Importantly, there were also some promising effects of the new intervention on actual behaviour.

A day later the students were offered a choice of snacks and drinks in a seemingly unrelated context. The teens in the third group condition, but not the other groups, chose healthy snacks and drinks (such as fruit or water) more often over unhealthy options (like biscuits and coke). As a consequence, they consumed on average 3.6g less sugar than the controls, which corresponds to almost one teaspoon and more than 10 per cent of the daily recommended intake. Two days later, these teenagers were also angrier in response to sugary drink ads and less tempted to drink them.

This simple classroom intervention influenced real-life choices and attitudes, whereas traditional educational approaches have struggled to have any influence at all. In this study, the researchers also did not find a significant difference between the traditional health appeal and no-treatment condition – simply educating adolescents about the effects of junk food was just as unsuccessful as doing nothing.

This study showed, that by playing to the adolescents’ own values and identity, there was real behaviour change. It could be a promising intervention to prevent the obesity crisis we are currently in.

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