TESTING AN IDENTITY INTERVENTION FOR HEALTHY EATING

Survey research // Longitudinal diary study // Qualitative coding // Behavior change

About this project:

This project explored the effectiveness of identity (noun) framing for healthy eating behavior change. Participants were randomly assigned to frame their healthy eating goals using use identity based language (e.g., "I am becoming a healthy person") or behavior based language (e.g., "I am striving to eat healthier"). After a three-week intervention, identity-based goal seekers were objectively and subjectively more successful at eating healthy.​

This project was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Shana Cole at Rutgers University. It was funded in part by the Aresty Research Foundation, and it is now published in Motivation and Emotion (Dominick & Cole, 2019).

OVERVIEW

In their daily lives, people are bombarded with challenges that threaten their goals. For example, someone trying to eat healthier might feel tempted by an unhealthy treat, or someone training for a marathon may want to skip a run and stay home to rest. Achieving goals requires that individuals generally generally make decisions that helpful, rather than hurtful, for their long-term pursuits.

This project tested the hypothesis that framing healthy eating goals as identities could help people eat healthy. 

Framing healthy eating goals as identities may help people more easily make healthy food choices.

Identity (noun) framing

"I am trying to become a healthy person."

Goal (verb) framing

"I am trying to eat healthier foods."

RESEARCH APPROACH

To evaluate the effectiveness of an identity based healthy eating intervention compared to a control healthy eating intervention, we conducted a series of longitudinal daily diary studies with a baseline period and a post-intervention evaluation period.

Participants

  • Students were recruited to participate in a study about "daily life" where they would be asked to complete nightly surveys for either 10 days (Sample 1) or 3 weeks (Sample 2)

  • Students were pre-screened to be interested in eating healthier, but did not know the study was about healthy eating

Days 1-3

BASELINE PERIOD

For three days, participants completed nightly surveys where they reported about their day and uploaded up to 3 photos of meals they ate that day. 

Day 3

INTERVENTION

Participants set a New Year’s Resolution related to healthy eating and described their goal. Then, they were introduced to one of two goal framing interventions.

Research has shown that people are more successful at enacting healthy behaviors when they adopt their healthy eating goals as part of their identity. How will you making healthy eating a part of who you are?

Identity Condition

Research has shown that people are more successful at enacting healthy behaviors when they remind themselves to stay committed to their goals. How will you stay committed to your healthy eating goals?

Goal Condition

Days 4-10

POST-INTERVENTION

For seven days, participants continued to complete nightly surveys reporting about their day and uploading up to 3 photos of meals they ate that day. 

DATA CLEANING & CODING

We had over 4,000 pictures of undergraduate student meals! In addition to participants self-reporting how healthy they believed each meal to be, a separate group of independent coders evaluated each picture for characteristics of healthiness. We then computed an average healthiness score for the baseline and post-intervention period, including separate ratings for self-reported healthiness and healthiness ratings from the photos.

RESULTS & TAKEAWAYS

The intervention was more effective in increasing healthy eating among participants who framed their goals as identities compared to those who simply set goals. Specifically, participants who framed their goals as identities increased their healthy eating from baseline to post-intervention to a greater extent than participants who simply set goals and wrote about their commitment to them. This pattern of results was identical between the healthiness ratings of the photos and the self-reported participants ratings. 

Self-reported healthiness

* Statistically significant difference between baseline and post-intervention (p < .05)

*** Statistically significant difference between baseline and post-intervention (p < .01)

Baseline

Post-intervention

"I just don't feel like myself when I don't eat healthy or when I am inactive. Eating healthy helps me feel more like myself."

People who framed their goal as a new identity compared to those who simply set a new goal were more successful at eating healthy. Why?

Identity (noun) framing led goal pursuit to feel easier and more natural.

"I am trying to become a healthy person."

Healthy food choices felt easier, more natural, and more aligned with "who I am."

In comparison, goal (verb) framing led goal pursuit to feel less natural and a bit more difficult.

"I am trying to eat healthier foods."

Healthy food choices felt more difficult, more taxing, and came less naturally.

IN SUM

Framing health goals as identities led participants to make healthier food choices, partially because it felt easier and more natural for them to make healthy choices. This is preliminary evidence that re-framing goals as identities is one strategy that may facilitate long term success. So, if you're struggling with a goal to eat healthy, try and redefine yourself as a healthy person who naturally makes healthy choices in your day to day life. It will be tough at first, but you can do it!
 

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©2019 Janna Kline Dominick