Encouraging health behaviours to tackle the pandemic

Research Lives: Prof Molly Byrne, director of the Health Behaviour Change Research Group NUIG School of Psychology

Prof Molly Byrne: ‘People need three things to make any behaviour change – capability, opportunity and motivation’

Prof Molly Byrne: ‘People need three things to make any behaviour change – capability, opportunity and motivation’


Your research is on changing health behaviour – a particularly a hot topic due to Covid-19. What is your work about?

All of my research is about developing behavioural science and applying that to improve health outcomes. We want to encourage behaviours that can help to prevent disease or manage it.

How do you motivate people to change their health behaviours?

We know people need three things to make any behaviour change – capability, opportunity and motivation. So to take self-isolation in the pandemic as an example, you have to think about whether and how people can do that. Do they have the knowledge to identify symptoms and know when they should self-isolate?

Can they stay home from work, and can they practically stay away from other people in their house? You also need to think about how to motivate them, in this case with the message that by staying socially distanced and also isolating if they have symptoms, they are protecting themselves and others and supporting frontline healthcare workers.

What was keeping you busy before the pandemic?

I am working on a number of projects focusing on prevention and managing chronic disease. For example, one ongoing project I’m working on with my colleague Prof Sean Dinneen in Galway is the D1 Now study. It looks at how we can keep young people with diabetes engaged with their care and clinics as they transition from child to adult health services.

We have a wonderful panel of young people with diabetes who are part of the research team. They help us to design interventions suited to their age group, like sending information over social media rather than letters through the post. That kind of insight is critical, otherwise what we do won’t reach the people who need it.

How has Covid-19 affected your research?

Because health services and healthcare delivery has been turned upside down by this pandemic, we are adapting and moving a lot of our interventions and research online. We are also working directly on health behaviours relating to Covid-19.

One project is iCARE, a survey gathering information from around the world about people’s attitudes and behaviours during the pandemic.

I’m also working with my colleague Dr Gerry Molloy in Galway on the challenges and beliefs around social distancing, and how we can communicate messages to the public to ensure that everyone adheres to social distancing recommendations.

But how can you ensure the research evidence informs behaviours in the pandemic?

I am part of the behaviour change sub-group that advises the National Public Health Emergency Team. We look at evidence from behavioural science and advise on how NPHET should communicate its guidelines for Covid-19, so this is a way that findings from research can quickly have an impact on public health.

This is obviously a developing situation, so we meet weekly to discuss our research priorities, and we take into account the different phases and the nuances of more complicated messages about behaviour as the restrictions ease.

What keeps you going as a researcher?

I really love research. I learn new things every day, and I do it in the hope that it will improve health outcomes.

And finally, how do you take a break?

I’ve always been disciplined about taking breaks. I don’t work in the evenings or over weekends, and I encourage others in my research group to do the same. It makes me more efficient in work, and then in my “time off” I am busy with family, choir and enjoying the magnificence of sea and culture that Galway has to offer.”

More about the iCARE study and how to take part in its surveys can be found here.