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The Behavioral Ontology Working Group – A Starting Point for Resolving Definitional Problems in Current Behavioral Theories

Eric B. Hekler, PhD, Susan Michie, DPhil, CPsychol, FBPS, AcSS, Larry An, Kai R. Larsen, PhD, Timothy W. Bickmore, Phd, Wendy J. Nilsen, PhD
Coordinated by Alexander J. Rothman, PhD, TTBCI SIG Outlook Liaison

The SBM Theories and Techniques of Behavior Change Interventions SIG and the SBM Technology SIG (note, formerly known as the Behavioral Informatics SIG) are co-sponsoring the development of a behavioral ontology to help support better defined behavioral theories and constructs. There is increasing recognition that there are problems with the definitions and specifications used in our current behavioral theories. Much like the ancient story of Babel, in which a lack of a common language halts progress, we have a wide range of different behavioral theories that often discuss similar topics but with different terms for the same constructs (e.g., self-efficacy and perceived behavioral control) or even use the same term but with different meanings depending on the theoretical orientation. This "Tower of Babel" problem is only compounded with our increased interaction with other disciplines, who bring their own theories, models and terminology to the behavioral world (e.g., reinforcement learning has a completely different meaning to computer scientists than to behavioral scientists). While progress has been made towards improved definition and standardization of terms and constructs (e.g., Behavior Change Techniques Taxonomy1 or the GEM project for measures (http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/brp/gem.html), a great deal more work is required. At last year's SBM conference, a working group was formed to focus on developing a computable ontology to help address this problem. Computational ontologies are a resource for researchers as they can model "knowledge" such as the concepts, constructs, techniques, measures and relationships among constructs that unify theories within a domain such as health behavior. Because the process of developing an ontology requires investigators to express an explicit, formal model of the domain, the creation of an ontology requires resolution of ambiguities that are present in the literature and among domain experts. As such, the creation of a health behavior ontology provides a valuable methodology for addressing the current Tower of Babel problem we face with behavior theories.

Current work on the ontology has focused specifically on building on Dr. Susan Michie et al's Capability Opportunity Motivation Behavior (COM-B), Behavior Change Wheel,2 Behavior Change Techniques Taxonomy,1 and other related work. Dr. Larry An and his team have created a first pass of this ontology with an explicit focus on creating an ontology that will be useful for aiding in the creation of behavioral interventions. This preliminary ontology is currently being shared and refined within the working group. Following initial approval from the working group, the ontology will then be shared and evaluated by members in the SBM Theories and Techniques of Behavior Change Interventions SIG and the SBM Technology SIG. The goal is to have an ontology that can be discussed and shared with the full SBM community at the next SBM conference in Philadelphia. If you would like to take part in the development of this ontology, please email Drs. Eric Hekler (ehekler@asu.edu), Susan Michie (s.michie@ucl.ac.uk), or Larry An (lcan@umich.edu), to learn more about how you can get involved.

  1. Michie S, Richardson M, Johnston M, et al. The Behavior Change Technique Taxonomy (v1) of 93 Hierarchically Clustered Techniques: Building an International Consensus for the Reporting of Behavior Change Interventions. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 2013:1-15.
  2. Michie S, van Stralen MM, West R. The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science 2011;6:42.