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BiteSCIze with Ella Howes

● Who are you?

Since starting a PhD, this is a slightly harder question to answer! In doing a PhD, I suppose I’m a researcher. Before then, I was working in translational behavioural science on the Human Behaviour-Change Project at UCL. I’m also a writer and podcaster. I write and talk (a lot!) about grief (occasionally applying a behavioural science lens and sometimes combining them together). 

● How did you get into Behavioural Science?

Short story: 

  • I did a masters in Behaviour Change at UCL, which then led me to the Human Behaviour-Change Project (where I mainly worked on the Behaviour Change Intervention Ontology, and the dissemination of project findings). This sparked an interest in trying to understand the complexity of behaviour change interventions, which has then led to a PhD!

The longer story (with the behavioural science related thinking in brackets…)

  • When I was 18, my Mum was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer (medicine can’t fix everything…). 
  • For two-years we researched anything and everything that could help delay the well-denied inevitable. While this gave us a sense of control over the situation, it also meant that sometimes we didn’t always agree with Mum’s oncologist about the best course of action (just because someone is a doctor, it doesn’t mean you’ll do what they tell you).
  • When I read anything ‘bad’ about Mum’s diagnosis, I ignored it (I had a HUGE case of confirmation bias…).
  • I just absolutely could not believe what ‘stage 4’ meant – and so I didn’t (our brains are extraordinarily good at making things up and seeing what they want to believe).
  • A year later, I was introduced to social cognition models in a ‘Health and Behaviour’ module at uni. They captured things like the influence of ‘health beliefs’ and ‘attitude’, which felt eerily relatable (I remember thinking, oh wow there is a ‘science’ to understanding this complexity…). 
  • A year after that I started the masters, and the behavioural science journey officially began! Although it has stayed very much grounded in an appreciation of the capacity we have to behave in ways that don’t make sense to other people (but which make complete sense to us).

 ● What are you working on right now?

The first (and main thing) is a PhD. I’m looking at what we can learn from adaptations made to complex interventions in trials that were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m particularly interested in what a change in mode of delivery means for other aspects of a complex intervention (for example, fidelity of intervention delivery and the engagement of participants). 

The second thing is a weekly newsletter on grief. This was both a behaviour change intervention on myself to write more (by publicly committing to it!) but is also a way to share more digestible insights into the ‘black box’ of grief (which – despite its universal prevalence – we never hear much about…).

● What do you like most about what you do?

The PhD: I like thinking about how I can weave behavioural science thinking into trials methodology (for example, if I’m going to develop guidance to support the remote delivery of complex interventions in trials, how can I make it as useable as possible for time poor trial teams working in very resource-constrained settings…).

The newsletter: I like to give people a moment each week to consider grief a bit more casually than they might have done otherwise…

● What role is there for communications in changing behaviour?

I’m going to give you a very convoluted analogy to answer this …

I think the role of ‘communications’ in changing behaviour is a bit like the role food plays for us and our health. A lot of food can be processed trash, but good food can make a whole lot of difference. However, food in a packet on the shelf is useless. We need the right tools to make, eat and digest it properly (I have to stop myself here before I draw a parallel with gut bacteria and physical opportunity…). 

In other words, (good) communication can play an essential role in changing behaviour, but it needs an enabling environment and resources to support it too…

● If you could work/research any topic what would it be and why?

My PhD! (I’m two months in so this might be because l’m feeling quite inspired and excited by it all – as the years go by this might change!).

● What is your favourite behavioural science paper/book/resource and why?

Why is changing health-related behaviour so difficult? By Professor Mike Kelly and Professor Mary Barker. It gives some great examples for why we need a more deliberate understanding of behaviour before we try and change it.  

● Who do you think is interesting in the general field?

Professor Marie Johnston! For five decades, she has done amazing and pioneering work in the field of health psychology (and has fascinating insights on just about everything!).

What haven’t we asked you that we should have?

How do I sign up for the Feeling Griefy newsletter? Well, I’m so glad you asked:

You can sign up here: https://substack.com/@ellahowes ☺ 

Who is one person that we can speak to for our next interview and if you could ask them one question, what would it be?

I loved Katy Milkman’s book ‘How to Change’ – so I’d want to ask Katy, out of all the techniques she shares, which does she apply the most in her life and how (I love a top tip!).

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