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Ryan Rhodes Talks about Theory: Past, Present, and Future

Theories and Techniques of Behavior Change Interventions Special Interest Group Chairs David M. Williams, PhD, Arlen C. Moller, PhD, Heather L. Gainforth, PhD, and Dejan Magoc, PhD

Ryan Rhodes, PhD
Ryan Rhodes, PhD

In anticipation of the Theories and Techniques of Behavior Change Interventions Special Interest Group (TTBCI SIG) Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM) 2016 Annual Meeting debate on the utility of social cognitive theories, we interviewed debate participant and theory expert Ryan Rhodes, PhD, to ask him about his views on the role of theory in behavioral medicine research.

Dr. Rhodes is an SBM fellow, a senior scientist of the Canadian Cancer Society, and professor and director of the Behavioural Medicine Laboratory at the University of Victoria.

TTBCI: How did you become interested in testing and refining health behavior theories as a primary aim of your research?

Dr. Rhodes: "I have always been interested in why people do what they do, particularly individual differences: Why does one person find something exciting and fun, but another person has another interpretation? This led me to study personality traits early in my career and then to the affect domain, the convoluted relationship between perceived ability and motivation, nonconscious processes, and the intention-behavior relationship."

TTBCI: In a nutshell, what is your perspective on the social cognitive theories that are currently predominant in health behavior science?

Dr. Rhodes: "They are based heavily on rationalist perspectives of benefits versus barriers or expectancy/value. Clearly this is important and the benefits of health-related behaviors drive most of the reasons for intervention. However, the affective and built environment domains are not as well articulated in social-cognitive theories. So the rise of other models, such as the socioecological framework, self-determination theory, and dual-process models, addresses some of the weaknesses of traditional social cognitive theories."

TTBCI: What sort of research is needed to make health behavior theories more explanatory and more useful?

Dr. Rhodes: "I think the day of the observational design as a method to validate a theory is coming to an end. Experimental work represents the best practical test of a theory in terms of its deliverable parts and content as well as behavior change as the outcome. This shift from observational to experimental research will benefit theory testing of all types in the future. In fact, one could argue that the problem with social cognitive theories is that they have not been appropriately tested."

TTBCI: Can you name a few favorite papers that you think have made an important contribution to advancing theories and techniques of behavior change over the last decade?

Dr. Rhodes: "There are many excellent papers from several scientists that have challenged existing theory and tried to advance theory, from work in the affect domain to nonconscious dual process models. I think the mediation article by Baranowski, Anderson, and Carmack (1998, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 15, 266-297) was very influential in summarizing the need for theories in interventions. Susan Michie's work has also been instrumental in linking theory to intervention techniques (e.g., Michie et al., 2013, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 46, 81-95). Papers by Sniehotta, Presseau, and Araújo-Soares, and Head and Noar (2014, Health Psychology Review, 8, 1-7, 34-52) have definitely stirred the pot recently, which has created some excellent commentary on theory and health behavior change. Likewise, the rise of self-determination theory has helped bring affect to the forefront."

TTBCI: Is there a paper or chapter you're most proud of?

Dr. Rhodes: "Still working on it. But, some of the papers I may be most proud of so far are those that I feel passionate about, but have been difficult to publish through peer review, such as papers that challenge the motivational and ability confound in self-efficacy assessment (Rhodes & Courneya, 2003, Psychology & Health, 18, 79-91; Rhodes, & Blanchard, 2007, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37, 753-768). My review paper on personality traits and physical activity was a reflection of the reason I got into behavioral medicine research, and so was something I wanted to write for several years (Rhodes & Smith, 2006, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40, 958-965). Also, my recent work on predictors of intention-behavior discordance (Rhodes & de Bruijn, 2013, Exercise and Sports Sciences Reviews, 41, 201-207; Rhodes & Yao, 2015, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 12, 1-15) and tackling the huge literature on correlates of sedentary behavior was a fun challenge (Rhodes, Temmel, & Mark, 2012, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 42, e3-28)."