Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine
Winter 2017-18

Balancing Pursuit of Your Own Interests with Pursuit of Public Health Goals: Insights from SBM 2018 Debate Participants

Austin Baldwin, PhD, Theories and Techniques of Behavior Change Intervention Special Interest Group (TTBCI SIG) chair and Susan Czajkowsk, PhD, TTBCI SIG co-chair

During the upcoming Society of Behavioral Medicine's (SBM's) Annual Meeting & Scientific Sessions in New Orleans, the Theories and Techniques of Behavior Change Interventions Special Interest Group (TTBCI SIG) will again be sponsoring a debate on a topic of broad interest to the behavioral medicine community. Our SBM 2018 debate topic, “Should behavioral medicine be more solution-oriented than it is currently?is based on a recent article published in Nature Human Behavior by Duncan Watts, entitled “Should Social Science Be More Solution-Oriented?

As with past debates, we hope the session will stimulate discussion and consideration of an issue we believe to be at the heart of behavioral medicine’s progress: namely, whether behavioral medicine should adopt a more solution-oriented approach with precise, targeted objectives to address pressing public health problems, or whether it is best to “let a thousand flowers bloom”, with encouragement of researchers to pursue their own interests and “passions”, first and foremost. This topic is not only central to our identity and progress as a field, but is faced by individual behavioral medicine researchers as they pursue their own careers. Of course, there is always a balance, with the ultimate goal being to improve the public health, but we can take different paths, and at times, must choose to emphasize one of these goals more than the other. Hopefully, the two goals converge, but often this is not the case.

To stimulate thinking about this issue and how it relates to individual researchers’ own goals and research trajectories, we asked our four SBM debaters to address the following question:

How can one best balance pursuit of one’s own passions and interests with pursuit of public health goals?

Here are their responses:

Angela Bryan, PhD

Dr. Bryan is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-director of the CU Change Lab.

In some ways, this question doesn’t actually arouse any tension for me because from the moment I got interested in pursuing research, it was with the intent of learning the answers to important questions in the domain of public health. From the time I took a course in social psychology as a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles, I was taken with Lewin’s notion that there was nothing so practical as a good theory. Though my research interests have expanded to a range of different health and risk behaviors (exercise, eating, substance use) and a wide range of the determinants of those behaviors (genetics, epigenetics, neurocognitive structure and function), the same theme continues to animate my research. I use and build on social psychological theories of behavior to understand what drives health behavior and how we might use that information to encourage that behavior. So I don’t feel the need to “balance” my passions in the research domain with the pursuit of public health goals because they are part and parcel of the same passion.

Ken Freedland, PhD

Dr. Freedland is a Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Scientists in several different fields of experimental and observational research have recently confirmed decades-old predictions based on the standard model of particle physics, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.  Behavioral medicine researchers engaged in the basic science of human behavior have their own theories, and many are devoted to testing the predictions that flow from them. But they are not theories about the fabric of spacetime or the mysterious nature of quantum entanglement. They are theories about why our grandparents do or don’t take their medications as prescribed, or why men with HIV do or don’t wear condoms, or why kids would rather play video games than go out and get some exercise.  These theories bring us no closer to the ultimate truth and beauty of the universe, but that’s okay because they may tell us something useful about some very consequential health behaviors and what we can do to modify them.  Our own basic science has meaning, purpose, and value, but only to the extent that it contributes to our applied science and to practical health-related applications of what we are able to learn through our research.  So please do pursue your passions and interests, if they happen to be in the basic science of behavioral medicine, but always pursue them with the goal of improving the health of people who need our help.  We owe them that, and nothing less.

Elva Arredondo, PhD

Dr. Arredondo is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University.

The pursuits of my research align with public health goals.  My program of research involves developing health promotion programs that address poor health outcomes evident in underserved communities.  As such, I develop community trials that aim to improve the health status of underserved communities.  This research includes understanding the underlying biological and behavioral mechanisms in which public health programs impact health behaviors and outcomes.  The rationale for understanding the pathways are not only of scientific interest and value, but align well with public health goals.  For example, to inform the development of behavioral intervention programs that are effective, sustainable and scalable, it is important to understand which behavioral change strategies are the strongest determinants of physical activity changes and at the same time to explore moderating factors that facilitate implementation and dissemination of program activities.

Donald Edmondson, PhD

Dr. Edmondson is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Medicine and the Director of the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Department of Medicine.

The shared public health goals that our field could address are so many, with so much left to do, that almost every individual passion could be pursued in a way that helps the field to address at least one shared goal. For example, there are many basic scientists interested in how an individual’s attention allocation reflects and shapes emotion regulation. Although this relatively specific interest may seem unconnected to broader public health goals, I know scientists that are currently working on incorporating such work into efforts to improve medication adherence in survivors of acute cardiovascular events. The perceived gap between the passions of individual scientists and needs of the field are largely due to a lack of a unified culture of behavioral medicine. Efforts such as the National Institues of Health Science of Behavior Change initiative as well as groups like the Open Science Foundation are beginning to make the connections between subfields more clear. Once we collectively see the connections between our individual efforts and the common goals of our field, it will be rare to find a scientist who chooses to do their work in isolation. Even those working on very early phase projects will have a sense of where their work will likely contribute.