Behaviour Change Advisor, Claire McDonald FRSPH, took part in the BBC's ‘Trust me I’m a Doctor’ programme on Behaviour Change to find out how changing everyday behaviour would impact our health.

Changing the nation’s behaviour is a constant quest for health organisations. The obvious benefits to the NHS and society as a whole of a healthier, lighter population lie just out of touch, while we try and figure ways to persuade, cajole, nudge and just downright frogmarch the population to better health.

At RSPH, we are constantly looking at ways we can contribute to improving the nation’s health. So when the BBC was looking for a partner to work with on its ‘Trust me I’m a Doctor’ programme on Behaviour Change, we were a natural choice.

I took up the challenge on behalf of RSPH and worked with the producers and presenter Dr Michael Mosley. I called in help from the University of Warwick to find opportunities and create a set of experiments where we could look at how we can change behaviour in the everyday that would impact on health and how successful they might be.

Ed Gardiner, Behavioural Design Lead at Warwick Business School, joined me in thinking through what might be possible, how we might create experiments that could demonstrate and how it might be possible to alter behaviour in everyday situations, but would also lend themselves to filming. The subtlety of some experiments would be lost with an overt camera crew being involved, while filming timescales also put their own set of restrictions of what and how we could experiment.

After a creative session at the Warwick Business School offices at the Shard with students from Warwick and members of the RSPH team, a set of potential environments and experiments were created. The next was to find locations and organisations willing to be part of the experiments.

The Co-op Supermarket were happy for us to experiment on how we might change purchasing and eating habits and the University of Derby were willing for us to experiments on their employee base were getting them to move more was the aim.

In the Co-op Supermarket, we built on previous experiments such as Brian Wansink’s Slim by Design and Damien Edwards’ work in retail where different interventions had been used. We pulled them together and adapted them for use in the Co-op in Derby, with the overall aim of changing the purchase pattern of fruit and vegetables in the store.

Using timely messages at appropriate places in the store to encourage fruit and vegetables purchase and then providing the infrastructure and the opportunities to pick up fruit, at till points for instance, along with sampling, were all used to see if these kind of prompts, reminders and provision of trusted messaging could change shopping behaviour. 

In the University, teams of participants were created that would be set challenges in different methods to see which would be most effective in encouraging movement. All participants were given pedometers and could download the Stepjockey app – which aims to increase stair climbing – so that we could measure their activity levels both pre- and during the experiment.

There were three groups created: the first was provided with typical public health information about the benefits of exercise and walking more; the second was given the information but were incentivised by being set a competitive challenge within the group – the person who was most active would win a prize; the third and final group were set a co-operative challenge were together if they met or exceeded a group target they would benefit.

Analysis – the stuff that helps us figure out whether the experiment work and the unsung hero of behaviour change experiments – was delivered by Marsha Kirichek and Krishane Patel. Both Marsha and Kris, scoured the figures from the supermarkets and the university exercise teams to understand what was the impact of the interventions and how the impact was felt.

Want to know how the experiments turned out? Tune in to BBC 2 at 8.00 pm on Wednesday 20/27 January to find out how we changed behaviour.

All photos: Catherine Abbott/BBC.