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Making Changes: Learning from Social Science Research to Drive Behavior Change

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About half of all Americans make resolutions each January – for example to lose weight or quit smoking – and nearly all of them fail to make or sustain these desired changes. When individual change is already so hard, how can we hope to achieve change at the societal level, such as reducing domestic energy consumption to minimizing HIV contraction and transmission in developing countries?

Government agencies and contractors, non-governmental organizations, and private sector firms enact numerous policies and programs to achieve behavioral change in target populations, but often with mixed results. Promoting large-scale behavior change requires more than personal insights, “common sense”, and untested assumptions. Social scientists have spent decades learning what does and does not work to incite change, but there is often a gap when applying this to practice. Join us to learn what insights social science research can provide for better understanding human behavior and improving behavior change efforts.

The full-day symposium brings together different actors, including policymakers, public- and private-sector organizations, civil society, academics, and activists, who want to promote behavior change in individuals and organizations for the common good. The symposium will provide an opportunity to discuss both theory and examples, success stories and continued challenges, and what can be done to improve programs and policies. It will showcase academic research and practical experiences and will highlight common themes across sectors and fields, including health, environment, and human rights. Breakfast and lunch will be provided.


8:30am                  Check-In Opens (Light continental breakfast available)

9:00 - 10:00 am     Welcome & Keynote Address

Redirect: Changing People's Behavior by Editing Their Stories

Welcome: Katharina Anton-Erxleben, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, U.S. Agency for International Development; Co-chair of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship Social Science Affinity Group

Introduction: Janetta Lun, Ph.D., Scientific Workforce Diversity, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health

Keynote Speaker: Timothy Wilson, Ph.D., Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia 

10:00 – 11:00 am  Theories of Behavioral Change

How and why people change behavior (or don't) has been studied for decades across multiple disciplines. This session will present an overview of the most prominent and current theories that underpin behavior change efforts from individual, group, and socio-cultural perspectives.

Moderator: Carrie Hritz, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Directorate for Geosciences, Office of the Assistant Director, National Science Foundation

SpeakersAmy Best, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University

Irina Feygina, Ph.D., Fellow, Social and Behavioral Science Team, Office of Science and Technology Policy, White House

11:00 – 11:15 am   Break

11:15 – 12:00 pm   Marketing for Change

Whether a particular behavior change campaign is successful or not can crucially depend not only on the message itself, but also on how it is communicated. This session will explore how the principles of marketing and communication science can be employed to achieve social change. Speakers will bridge theory to practice, explain how research informs campaigns that promote public benefit, and showcase some practical examples.

Moderator: Lynlee Tanner Stapleton, Ph.D., Society for Research in Child Development Executive Branch Policy  Fellow,  U.S.  Global  Development  Lab,  U.S.  Agency  for  International  Development; Co-chair of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship Social Science Affinity Group


Rebecca  Firestone,  Ph.D.,  Senior  Research  Advisor,  Strategic  Research  and  Evaluation, Population Services International

Anna Zawislanski, MPH, Director of Public Health and Senior Vice President, Social Change Practice, Ogilvy

12:00 - 1:15 pm     Movie Time & Small Group Discussion (Lunch available)

1:15 - 2:30 pm       Concurrent Panel Sessions (Part I):

A.    Best Practices for Reducing Institutional Bias

Institutional biases occur when widely held implicit  biases result in systemic practices and procedures that produce unequal outcomes across different social groups (e.g., gender, racial/ethnic groups, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status). Numerous research and social efforts are aimed at accurately defining, measuring, explaining and disseminating knowledge about institutional biases in attempts to decrease social inequities in U.S. society. This session will introduce key issues related to institutional biases from researchers and practitioners followed by a scenario-based exercise in which workshop attendees will learn and apply best practices to collaboratively develop potential solutions.


Frances Carter-Johnson, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Center for Scientific Review, National Institutes of Health


Lisa  Evans,  J.D.,  Scientific  Workforce  Diversity  Manager,  Office  of  the  Director,  Office  of Extramural Research, National Institutes of Health

Kecia Thomas, Ph.D., Associate Dean, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Industrial Organizational Psychology, University of Georgia

B.    Environment & Sustainability

Initiatives promoting biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and community resilience in the U.S. and around the world depend on adoption of particular behaviors. This session will critically examine various efforts promoting environment and sustainability behaviors, highlight the complex factors influencing individuals and groups, and discuss the role of social science in promoting effective and ethical behavior change for environmental sustainability and improved human well-being.


Nada Petrovic, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Office of Policy, Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning, U.S. Agency for International Development


Susan Crate, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University

Susan Mazur-Stommen, Ph.D., Principal & Founder, Indicia Consulting LLC

Jackie  Snelling,  Individual  and  Community  Preparedness  Division,  Citizens  Corps,  Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security

2:30 – 2:45 pm      Break

2:45 – 4:00 pm      Concurrent Panel Sessions (Part 2):

A.  Critical Approaches to Countering Violent Extremism

Mitigating conflict and violent extremism (CVE) is one of the current priorities of U.S. foreign policy, as well as a preoccupation of many other local and international actors working in parts of the world where violence and instability disrupt daily life. However, there is a lively public debate about how well these programs match up with behavioral science research on changing hearts and minds. This panel will tackle the question of CVE and foreign assistance programs from multiple perspectives and will ask the audience to participate in a group exercise applying these perspectives to current U.S. CVE policy.


Laura Adams, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, office of the LGBTI Senior Coordinator, U.S. Agency for International Development


Lynn Carter, Ph.D., Senior Vice President for Democracy, Governance and Conflict Resolution Programming at Management Systems International

Casey Johnson, Senior Program Officer, United States Institute of Peace

Peter Mandaville, Ph.D., Senior Advisor, Office of Religion and Global Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Associate Professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs; and Co-Director of George Mason University’s Center for Global Studies

B.  Motivating Behavior Change in Public Health

Many behaviors with adverse health outcomes have been identified – tobacco use, insufficient physical activity, unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol consumption, unsafe sex. However, driving change to healthier behaviors is extremely challenging. Even if people can be appropriately motivated, the desire to engage in healthy behaviors frequently does not translate to sustained change. In this session, we will discuss approaches to achieving successful and sustained health behavior change leveraging awareness campaigns and mobile technologies.


Louise R. Howe, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Directorate for Engineering, Office of the Assistant Director National Science Foundation; Associate Research Professor, Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, Weill Cornell Medical College


David B. Abrams, Ph.D., Professor, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health; Executive Director, The Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies

Jeffrey D. Fisher, Director, Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention, University of Connecticut, Storrs

Wendy Nilsen, Ph.D., Program Director, Smart and Connected Health, National Science Foundation; Health Scientist Administrator, Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, National Institutes of Health

4:00 – 5:00 pm        Wrap up/Summary Session


Katharina Anton-Erxleben, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, U.S. Agency for International Development; Co-chair of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship Social Science Affinity Group


Laura Adams, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Center for Transformational Partnerships, Research and Innovation Fellows Program, Office of the Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development

Frances Carter-Johnson, Ph.D., AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Center for Scientific Review, National Institutes of Health & Technology Policy Fellow, Office of Behavioral and Research, National Institutes of Health

5:00 - 6:00 pm         Reception

This symposium is organized by the Social Science Affinity Group of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program, in collaboration with the Affinity Groups on Energy/ClimateHealth PolicyGlobal HealthBiodiversitySTEM Diversity and Women of Color in STEM.