Division of Health Psychology

The health psychologist’s own health behaviours: hypocrites or human?

Dr. Francis Quinn, Lecturer in Psychology, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

As health psychologists, we understand more than most about health behaviours. Does this give total power over our lifestyle? Well the contents of my kitchen cupboards, and my exercise attendance record, beg to differ. Am I just the world’s worst health psychologist? Maybe, but I think as health psychologists we can still struggle with health behaviours, just like most people in Western societies.

Ours is not the only health profession to face these struggles. Physicians tend to exercise no more than others, not get enough sleep, and nearly half eat less than five portions of fruit and vegetables per day (Wiskar, 2012). Would all health psychologists score more highly?

With our science and techniques, does a lack of perfection make us hypocrites, or human? We live in the same obesogenic environment as our patients and participants (Hill and Peters, 1998). We respond to the same psychological processes: habits, prompts, self-efficacy, negative attitudes, ups and downs of self-regulation, cognitive fatigue, and any others you can name. Many of us face long hours and workplace stress at a university or the NHS.

But maybe our human weakness can be a source of strength. We might be a better model to raise self-efficacy if seen to overcome our own struggles, trying and persevering, rather than seeming as if we don’t have any. Seeing exemplary performance can be discouraging and cause task disengagement (Rogers & Feller, 2016). And work with clients and research participants depends on a good relationship. People seen as highly competent – but not perfect – are more likeable (Aronson, Willerman & Floyd, 1966).

Personal struggles also feed into science. The clinical psychologist Marsha Linehan created dialectical behaviour therapy partly as a result of her own borderline personality disorder (Carey, 2011). It’s now recommended in NICE guidelines. Robert Sternberg’s struggles with love and academic achievement motivated his research in these fields (Sternberg, 2014). Personal struggles can inspire ideas that develop into theory, then are tested in research. At the core of many scientific theories are ideas from everyday experience.

Of course a health psychologist must present a positive role model. But being part of the struggle might help us understand it, by inspiring ideas to test scientifically.  Just as a doctor can become ill, or a clinical psychologist can face ups and downs of well-being, a health psychologist won’t always meet guidelines for exercise or portions of fruit and veg or dental flossing. But our science reminds us of the need to set such goals, that the environment will cause us to lapse and that we must keep trying, insights into why we don’t, and gives us some techniques that can help. Part of being a psychologist is being human, sensitive, and imperfect – just like our clients and participants. Maybe this helps us to create useful scientific knowledge, and to use it to help others.


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