Behavioral science has rarely offered effective strategies for changing adolescent health behavior. One limitation of previous approaches may be an overemphasis on long-term health outcomes as the focal source of motivation. The present research uses a rigorous randomized trial to evaluate an approach that aligns healthy behavior with values about which adolescents already care: feeling like a socially conscious, autonomous person worthy of approval from one’s peers. It improved the health profile of snacks and drinks participants chose in an ostensibly unrelated context and did so because it caused adolescents to construe the healthy behavior as being aligned with prominent adolescent values. This suggests a route to an elusive result: effective motivation for adolescent behavior change.Abstract
What can be done to reduce unhealthy eating among adolescents? It was hypothesized that aligning healthy eating with important and widely shared adolescent values would produce the needed motivation. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled experiment with eighth graders (total n = 536) evaluated the impact of a treatment that framed healthy eating as consistent with the adolescent values of autonomy from adult control and the pursuit of social justice. Healthy eating was suggested as a way to take a stand against manipulative and unfair practices of the food industry, such as engineering junk food to make it addictive and marketing it to young children. Compared with traditional health education materials or to a non–food-related control, this treatment led eighth graders to see healthy eating as more autonomy-assertive and social justice-oriented behavior and to forgo sugary snacks and drinks in favor of healthier options a day later in an unrelated context. Public health interventions for adolescents may be more effective when they harness the motivational power of that group’s existing strongly held values.