The Science Behind Using Online Communities To Change Behavior

Editor’s note: Sean Young is a family medicine professor and director of innovation at the center for behavioral and addiction medicine at UCLA. He writes about topics related to psychology, technology, and public health/medicine at

Is it just me, or is it impossible to talk to technology entrepreneurs without mentioning user engagement and behavior? I’m a behavioral psychologist, so that might be why I keep having conversations about engagement, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. I think it’s because entrepreneurs have realized that behavior change and engagement is critical to technology development (and to everything else in our lives). Whether we’re trying to get people to download or keep playing our fantasy sports applications, convince ourselves to avoid that extra scoop of ice cream, or get our neighbor to stop hitting her snooze button at 5:00, 5:10, and 5:20 a.m., we understand how difficult it can be to engage people and change behavior.

Before talking about how to do this, it’s important that we’re on the same page that being able to change behavior is a powerful skill that could be used for good and/or evil. As entrepreneurs seeking to improve the world, we first need to make sure that 1) the products we are creating will benefit (rather than harm) society, and 2) the behavior(s) we want to change to be able to help us achieve those objectives. Once we’ve gotten past those steps, how do we change behavior?

Fortunately, there’s a science behind how to change behavior, and the answer to engagement and behavior change lies in understanding people’s psychology. By addressing people’s psychological needs and reasons for not changing behavior (including their social environments, cultural values, and emotions), we can be more effective at behavior change. Once we understand people’s psychologies, then technologies — online communities in particular — become really useful as platforms to rapidly change behavior.

Changing behavior one social network at a time

Although social media and online communities might have been developed for people to connect and share information, recent research shows that these technologies are really helpful in changing behaviors. My colleagues and I in the medical school, for instance, created online communities designed to improve health by getting people to do things, such as test for HIV, stop using methamphetamines, and just de-stress and relax. We don’t handpick people to join because we think they’ll love the technology; that’s not how science works. We invite them because the technology is relevant to them — they’re engaging in drugs, sex and other behaviors that might put themselves and others at risk. It’s our job to create the communities in a way that engages them enough to want to stay and participate. Yes, we do offer to pay them $30 to complete an hour-long survey, but then they are free to collect their money and never talk to us again. But for some reason, they stay in the group and decide to be actively engaged with strangers.

So how do we create online communities that keep people engaged and change their behaviors? Our starting point is to understand and address their psychological needs.

In most of the studies, we first need to answer their questions about privacy issues (what is being done with their data) and then build a trusting community. Unlike other communities, where people typically join out of interest, we need to create their interest and keep them engaged enough to want to stay and participate. To do this we have to slowly educate them about behavior change so that they feel comfortable and not pushed into changing. Little things such as liking a comment saying, “Everyone having a good day?” help them to feel safe and let them know they can be themselves and have fun connecting with others, without being forced to talk about health. After addressing these needs, we can then educate them and provide concrete, easy steps for how they could change their behavior.

You might think that most people wouldn’t actively participate in an online community unless they wanted to be there in the first place and thought it was relevant to them. Well, results from our three-month study released this September in Annals of Internal Medicine, found that over 80 percent of people who joined our groups were actively involved, and people in the intervention study groups were more likely to change their behaviors compared to people who were not. Interestingly, we keep finding that these research groups become actual online communities; in our first study, the actual intervention ended over two years ago, but people continue to actively use the community to reach out and support each other.

The Core Components

Throughout our research, we find that newly created online communities can change people’s behaviors by addressing the following psychological needs:

The Need to Trust. Sharing our thoughts, experiences, and difficulties with others makes us feel closer to others and increases our trust. When we trust people, we’re more open-minded, more willing to learn, and more willing to change our behavior. In our studies, we found that sharing personal information (even something as small as describing what you did today) can help increase trust and change behavior.

The Need to Fit In. Most of us inherently strive to fit in. Social norms, or other people’s attitudes and behaviors, heavily influence our own attitudes and behaviors. Each time a new online community or group forms, it creates its own set of social norms and expectations for how people should behave. Most people are willing to change their attitudes and/or behavior to fit these group norms and fit in with the community.

The Need for Self-Worth. When people feel good about themselves, they are more open to change and feel empowered to be able to change their behavior. When an online community is designed to have people support and care for each other, they can help to increase self-esteem.

The Need to Be Rewarded for Good Behavior. Anyone who has trained a puppy knows that you can get him to keep sitting as long as you keep the treats flowing to reward him, but if you want to wean him off the treats and really train him then you’ll need to begin spacing out the treats to make them less predictable. Well, people aren’t that different from animals in that way and can be trained with reinforcements too. For example, “liking” people’s communications when they immediately join a network, and then progressively spacing out the time that their posts are liked (psychologists call this variable reinforcement) can be incorporated onto social network platforms to encourage them to keep posting content. Eventually, these behaviors become habits.

The Need to Feel Empowered. While increasing self-esteem makes people feel good about themselves, increasing empowerment helps them know they have the ability to change. Creating a sense of empowerment is one of the most powerful predictors of whether people will change their behavior. Belonging to a network of people who are changing their own behaviors, support our needs, and are confident in our changing our behavior empowers us and gives us the ability to change our behavior.

Throughout my research career I’ve found that understanding psychological needs is the core of behavior change and engagement across all domains. People are complicated, so this list is by no means comprehensive, but addressing these needs should get you a long way toward how you can use technologies to change and sustain behavior.

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