Mathehu's Weblog

mulling over (research) ideas

Framing a research proposal idea

A year or so ago, I came across this simple but exeedingly helpful set of questions to help kick start a research proposal idea.

I came across it in a workshop at CQUniversity (Australia). I think it was produced by Janelle Kidd (DVC at CQUniversity) and/or Stewart Lockie (now Prof in Sociology, ANU, Australia).

It has helped me a couple of times to move from research idea to implementable strategy.

Framing a proposal idea

  1. Write a research question
  2. What is the important theoretical or conceptual setting?
  3. Write 2-3 key points about why it is important (Significance? Innovation?)
  4. Write 1-2 brief objective points (formulate full aims later)
  5. Write a couple of points about the approach you might take
  6. Will I have all the expertise/resources? Should I be talking to collaborators? Might the proposal be strengthened by having a team?
  7. Do I or will I need some ‘proof of concept’, preliminary data or demonstration of competency to undertake the project?
  8. Will the team/partners be competitive in this field?
  9. What would the outcome(s) be and who benefits?
  10. What is the ‘WOW’, ‘HOOK’, or ‘EXCITEMENT’ factor?

April 14, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Improving learning, teaching and engagement: What can we learn from behaviour change research?

This blog is based on discussions with a colleague on a range of topics surrounding behaviour change, (psycho)education and engaging clients.

One branch of our discussions has explored the utility of behaviour change models and techniques for learning, teaching, and client engagement with online mental health and (psycho)education tools.

It was hardly surprising that there is a wealth of literature surrounding the idea of changing people’s behaviour. I was particularly impressed with the work of Susan Michie and colleagues.

I particularly like their attempt at creating a taxonomy of behaviour change techniques inclusive of links to underlying theoretical frameworks. The following table provides an overview of their findings (Michie & Abraham, 2008, p. 382):

Another team of leading UK psychologists, including Michie and Abraham, summarised  and commented on the content of a national guidance document (published by NICE at) on behaviour change. Again, I provide a verbatim quote from their text but here is also a link to the recommendations section in the actual NICE document.

A framework for good practice in BCI design and evaluation
Following an introduction, the guidance discusses various considerations that were taken into account in drawing up the recommendations and particularly the integration of individual and social approaches to behaviour change.

The recommendations, themselves, are organised into eight principles of good practice which correspond closely to the principles of intervention mapping …

First, ‘planning of interventions’ should take account of socioeconomic and cultural contexts and strengths and skills of target groups. Planning should also anticipate barriers to change, ensure that BCI content is evidence-based and that ineffective interventions are discontinued.

The second, related principle concerns ‘assessing the social context’ in which interventions are situated including identifying and attempting to remove social, financial and environmental barriers that prevent people from making positive changes in their lives by, for example, tackling local poverty, limited employment and education opportunities.

The third principle concerns the ‘education and training’ of those responsible for BCI planning, implementation and evaluation.

The fourth, focussing on ‘individual-level interventions’, concerns application of psychological concepts to optimise motivation and support behaviour change.

Principle five, focusses on ‘community level interventions’ and concerns investment in
the strengths of individuals and communities. This principle underlines the importance of social relationships in facilitating behaviour change.

Principle six advocates that ‘population-level interventions’, including policy and legislative interventions are based on good information about the context, needs and behaviours of the target population(s) and are consistent with interventions delivered to individuals and communities.

Principle seven proposes that all interventions (and therefore funding for interventions) make provision for ‘rigorous monitoring and evaluation’ including use of appropriate process and outcome measures.

Finally, principle eight emphasises the need to ‘assess cost effectiveness’ and to ensure that this is central to intervention planning, evaluation and adoption” (Abraham, Kelly, West & Michie, 2009, p.3).

Particularly relevant to this blog is their expansion on the fourth recommendation, which follows below:

“(K)ey psychological targets worthy of consideration include:

  • Knowledge and outcome expectancies (helping people to develop accurate knowledge about the health consequences of their behaviours)
  • Personal relevance (emphasising the personal salience of health behaviours, that is, what the consequences mean for individuals)
  • Positive affective attitudes (promoting positive feelings towards the outcomes of behaviour change)
  • Descriptive norms (promoting the visibility of positive health behaviours in people’s reference groups – that is, the groups they compare themselves with, or aspire to)
  • Subjective norms (enhancing social approval for positive health behaviours in significant others and reference groups)
  • Personal and moral norms (promoting personal and moral commitments to behaviour change)
  • Self-efficacy (enhancing people’s belief in their ability to change) .
  • Intention/goal setting and the formation of concrete plans (helping people to form
    Behavioural contracts (inviting people to commit to their plans with others).
  • Social relationships (helping people recognise how their social contexts and relationships may affect their behaviour) plans and goals in graded steps, over time and in specific contexts, including making if-then plans and developing appropriate coping strategies)
  • Relapse prevention (helping people to develop skills to cope with difficult situations and conflicting goals once they have initiated change)” (Abraham, Kelly, West & Michie, 2009, p. 4-5).

What I particularly like about this last list of psychological targets is that they do not exclusively focus on the components of, for example, a functional analysis. They do not stop at considering antecedents, beliefs/behaviours, and consequences. They allude to the importance of working with people’s aspirations, the meaning they find in their actions as well as the social and physical context affecting them. If anything, these drivers of behaviour would deserve more attention in lists like the above.

Now, I maneuvered myself to a place where I can start talking about Salutogenesis and its focus on “comprehensibility—the cognitive component; (ii) manageability—the instrumental or behavioural component; and (iii) meaningfulness—the motivational component” (Lindstroem & Eriksson, 2006, p. 31).

But that’s for another blog…


Abraham C, Kelly MP, West R, & Michie S. (2009). The UK national institute for health and clinical excellence public health guidance on behaviour change: a brief introduction. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 14(9), 1-8.

Lindström, B., & Eriksson, M. (2006). Contextualizing salutogenesis and Antonovsky in public health development. Health promotion international, 21(3), 238-44. doi: 10.1093/heapro/dal016.

Michie S, Abraham C. (2008). A taxonomy of behavior change techniques used in interventions. Health Psychology, 27(3), 379-87.

NICE. (2007). Behaviour change. Retrieved from

April 14, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

How do we explain human actions and experiences?

I am currently reading Brian Green’s The Fabric of the Cosmos. He starts out by outlining different perspectives on reality as taken by historical or contemporary (physical) scientists. It struck me that I am not readily able to come up with similar perspectives aiming to explain people’s actions and experiences. It might be time for me to go  back to basics and I am trying to start this process below.

In psychology, we take a variety of perspectives to try and explain human actions and experiences. A basic systematisation of this perspective is difficult. For example, I could start with the following points of view:

  • behavioural
  • cognitive
  • social
  • evolutionary
  • spiritual
  • genetic
  • eco-systemic
  • cultural
  • linguistic
  • neuro-sequential
  • physical
  • ecological
  • economic


These perspective can be taken on their own or combined in various ways. Some of them may already be combinations of perspectives. Is this important or does it not really matter?

I think it is important as each of these can be associated with underlying methaphors. The behaviour perspective, for example, may utilise mechanistic metaphors or the cognitive perspective information-processing metaphors.

I’ll try to keep working on this over the next little while…

March 31, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Update to Why don’t I meditate? Well, now I do.

I have started to meditate, well at least to be mindful, and I have reaped the first rewards. One of the first rewards was to re-discover how nice it is to take a shower. This may sound strange but that was among my first positive experiences with being mindful. I used to take my time in the shower to day dream my potential but elusive successes or to plan the day ahead.

My first mindful shower was a revelation. It feels fantastic to take a shower. I actually felt the water pearling down my body, saw the foam bubbles and shapes, enjoyed using my wife’s sponge and the tingling sensation it creates on the skin. Taking a mindful shower turned showering from a chore into an even that increased my wellbeing for the time I spent in the shower and also before and after. I now look forward to taking a shower every morning and afterwards I feel refreshed. Before, I felt more stressed than relaxed as I either had ended my day dreaming or had a pretty good idea of what I had to accomplish that day.

Another reward of practicing mindfulness was the realisation that simply focusing on my breathing meant that I wasn’t focusing on things I haven’t yet done. Only after being mindful on a couple of occasions did I actually realise that by simply being there, focusing on my breath or my surroundings, I did not stress myself by thinking about things in the past or coming up in the future. Focusing on my breath actually gave me a little breather. I had read it before but I experienced what it meant that being in the present moment frees you from the past and the future.

Thinking back, I think what finally started my mindfulness practice was reading Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap along with the growing evidence base on mindfulness-based Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. I wanted to start using mindfulness and the literature told me that I really should make mindfulness part of my tool kit in my work as a clinical psychologist. The Happiness Trap was a fantastic start on this journey, both for me personally and for me as a professional.

I then moved on to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever you go there you are. At the moment it feels like this book will stay my companion and guide forever. (I decided on keeping this sentence in. I know it makes me sound like a tree-hugging hippie but it’s how I feel. Peace! 😉

March 27, 2010 Posted by | mindfulness | | Leave a comment

Behaviour modification: Token economy

Token economies are used to motivate people to perform target behaviours and to dissuade them from engaging in unwanted actions. Participants showing desirable behaviours are rewarded with tokens, which can eventually be exchanged for actual rewards, called backup reinforcers.

Tokens as well as backup reinforcers can be earned by following specific rules or procedures about how to earn and lose reward tokens. This usually includes a list of target behaviours, the frequency of which are to be increased or decreased.  The type of tokens can vary from individual to individual to allow for the varsity in what motivates different individuals. They can be anything, ranging from symbolic gestures to physical objects.

Once a pre-specified amount of tokens was earned, they can be exchanged for one of a list of backup reinforcers. Backup reinforcers are meaningful reinforcers for the people involved, again, ranging from abstract to material rewards. The backup reinforcers are not individualised but generic to every participant. For more, much more information about token economies see Spiegler & Guevremont (2010).

For the most part, token economies appear to be used with (mainly groups of) children, adolescents or people with perceived mental health issues. In my opinion, this technique is underused in the healthy adult populations. It has great potential in areas like tertiary education or health promotion.


Spiegler, M. D. & Guevremont, D. C. (2010). Contemporary behaviour therapy. Belmont: Wadsworth, pp. 181-196.

March 26, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification | | Leave a comment

Behaviour modification – Chaining

Chaining is a series of successive shaping interventions used for the learning of more complicated behaviours. It entails shaping subsequent components of a target behaviour as well as linking the various parts.

Chaining can be used in a backward and forward steps. In backward chaining, the last behavioural step leading to a target behaviour is focused on first. Once this behaviour component is sufficiently shaped, the penultimate behaviour component is targeted, etc. Backward chaining does not always work as some complex behaviours, for example becoming relaxed,  necessarily need to go through certain processes in order to be achieved. Forward chaining does exactly this. The first component of a target behaviour is focused on first, followed by the second step, etc.

Example of backward chaining – Creating a blog

For example, you would like to entice someone to start blogging. Using a backward chaining approach, the first step could be to perform a task analysis. In other words, to break the entire process of blogging down into meaningful steps. This could be followed by a demonstration of how working through these steps will lead to the publication of a blog. Applying backward chaining, the learner could then be asked to type a welcome message in the edit field of a pre-prepared blog. You would only ask this person to write the sentence and then click the ‘Publish’ button. Once this step is achieved, you ‘reinforce’ or ‘reward’ that behaviour (i.e. praise for a child, or chocolate for me). Then you focus on the next step, for example, opening the editing window. If the person can do this, reward them for this step and the next (writing and publishing). Follow this through to the first step (whatever that is, from going online to registering a new blog).

Using this approach, the learner first receives a demonstration of the entire process and then works his or her way back from the final product or behaviour. The demonstration can be repeated as often as necessary as the learner will benefit each time by witnessing the step of actions leading up to the target behaviour.

Example of forward chaining – Learning relaxation training

Every relaxation training will encourage the trainee to follow a series of steps on the way to become progressively more relaxed.

For good examples of relaxation techniques, see

Examples of websites explaining chaining well: (This site includes a handy Chaining Data Sheet; its use needs permission from the author)

March 18, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification | | Leave a comment

Behaviour modification: Shaping

Shaping is a strategy used to positively reinforce individuals for exhibiting  closer and
closer approximations to a target behavior.This behaviour modification tool is most effective when used to increase desired behaviours. Once a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) target behaviour is identified, the target is compared with the  individual’s actual behaviours.

The gap between the actual and target behaviour is assessed and milestones are determined, which help to assess the individual’s progress towards adopting the target behaviour.  After reaching each milestone, the individual is given positive reinforcement in a meaningful way. It is important here, that only behaviour consistent with the newest milestone is reinforced.  Behaviour consistent with previous milestones are now longer reinforced because these targets have already been met. Behaviours exhibited by the individual are deemed ‘consistent’ if they are in any way interpretable as a variant of the target behaviour.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification | | 3 Comments

Behaviour modification

I noticed that it has been a long time since I looked closely at behaviour modification techniques. Having looked through some books, journals and websites, I realised that I have forgotten a lot and that there is a wealth of information now available. Hence, I’ll try and get myself a bit more up to speed.

Although the following website is about behaviour modification in children, it provides a great way to start the investigation:

Citation: Huitt, W. (1994). Principles for using behavior modification. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from

Huitt makes a helpful distinction between

– developing a new behaviour

– strengthening a new behaviour

– maintaining an established behaviour

– stopping inappropriate behaviour, and

– modifying emotional behaviour

I’ll be mostly interested in strategies to help starting new behaviours and maintaining new behaviours.

March 15, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification | | 1 Comment


Ever wondered whether CBT works for patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis?

Well, wonder no more 😉

See: Cognitive behaviour therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome in adults

March 1, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Urge surfing

Image taken from

In my quest to becoming a mindful person, I have repeatedly come across the idea of ‘urge surfing‘. Just knowing about this has helped me tremendously in many areas of every day life.
Rather than me explaining other people’s concept, here are a couple of helpful links. Most of the links are about dealing with an alcohol or drug problem. However, the same principles apply for avoiding unnecessary snacks, smoking, procrastinating, etc.

January 17, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment