Welcome to the Behaviour and Health Research Unit - Cambridge

Featured Video Play Icon

The Behaviour and Health Research Unit contributes evidence to national and international efforts to achieve sustained behaviour change to improve health outcomes and reduce health inequalities.

The main focus of our work is on developing effective ways of changing four sets of behaviour – smoking, excessive consumption of food and alcohol, and physical inactivity. Changing theses behaviours positively would help to prevent the majority of the preventable non-communicable diseases, including many cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Further information about the BHRU can be found on our research, publications, and team member pages.

The Force is Not With You….Theresa Marteau: Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)

The Force is Not With You….Theresa Marteau: Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)

In this article: BHRU’s Director Professor Theresa Marteau highlights recent research findings that attest to the power of environments over personalised risk information in shaping unhealthy behaviour often without awareness. But while communication of risk is a poor means for changing behaviour she argues it may be core to changing behaviour across populations if it increases public demand for governments to change the environments – physical, digital, economic and social – to make easier the healthier behaviour that most of us prefer but find difficult to achieve.

To access the article, click here.

Dissociation between real-world food choices and health value judgements in obesity

Dissociation between real-world food choices and health value judgements in obesity

In an fMRI study published in eNeuro, we show that overweight people make unhealthier food choices when presented with real food compared to lean people, though both make similar, healthier selections when presented with hypothetical choices. Very similar health value judgements of foods in lean and overweight people were accompanied by comparable patterns of brain activity.

These findings demonstrate that greater consumption of unhealthy foods by overweight people is not driven by differences in health value judgements. They also highlight the power of food environments in overriding people’s intentions in making healthier food choices.

Medic N, Ziauddeen H, Forwood SE, Davies KM, Ahern AL, Jebb SA, Marteau TM, Fletcher PC. The presence of real food usurps hypothetical health value judgment in overweight people.

Review finds communicating genetic risks does not change health behaviour

Review finds communicating genetic risks does not change health behaviour

A systematic review led by researchers at the Behaviour and Health Research Unit (BHRU), published on the 16th of March in the BMJ, has found the most conclusive evidence to date that communicating the results of DNA tests has little or no impact on behaviour change, such as stopping smoking or increasing physical activity.

The authors reviewed the results of 18 randomised controlled trials on the effects of communicating genetic risk estimates of a range of diseases for which behaviour change could reduce that risk. The results showed no significant effects of communicating DNA based risk estimates on smoking cessation, diet, or physical activity. There were also no effects on any other behaviours (alcohol use, medication use, sun protection behaviours, and attendance at screening or behavioural support programmes).

These results are timely, given high levels of interest in personalised medicine and increasing use of direct-to-consumer testing for a range of common complex disorders. They mean that existing evidence does not support expectations that such interventions could play a major role in motivating behaviour change to improve population health.

The impact of communicating genetic risks of disease on risk-reducing health behaviour: systematic review with meta-analysis. Hollands, French, Griffin, Prevost, Sutton, King, Marteau. 2016

Access full text.

How can researchers understand healthy vs. less healthy food choices?

How can researchers understand healthy vs. less healthy food choices?

Dr Suzanna Forwood, former Research Associate in the BHRU, and now Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, has written a focus piece on the challenges involved in researching choices people make when purchasing or consuming food. The article draws on examples from her own research as well as the wider environment and policy issues. To see the full article click here.

Understanding interventions that change behaviour outside of conscious awareness

Understanding interventions that change behaviour outside of conscious awareness

In a paper published in Health Psychology Review, we have proposed a framework for describing or categorising interventions to change behaviour by the degree to which their effects may be considered non-conscious. This is important because unhealthy behaviours often occur directly in response to environmental cues outside of conscious awareness, meaning that interventions that target non-conscious rather than conscious processes may have significant potential to shape healthier behaviours and improve health. However, examining this key premise requires a practicable conceptual framework that can be used to better describe and assess these interventions. This paper builds on a previous analysis by the same authors highlighting the importance of targeting automatic processes to change behaviour, published in Science in 2012.

Non-conscious processes in changing health-related behaviour: a conceptual analysis and framework. Hollands, Marteau, & Fletcher.

Access full text.