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Episode 4: Dr Conor Linehan – Psychology and the design of technology for fitness and health

Episode description:

Prof Anna Cox talks to Dr Conor Linehan, an expert in the design and evaluation of technology to support education and health behaviours. We cover his journey from being a psychologist to a leading HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) specialist, working on the application of behavioural psychology principles to technology design. Conor has a particular interest in gaming and gamification, and reveals how we already know which games are best at encouraging people to exercise over the longer term, so physical activity researchers are on a bit of a wild goose chase trying improve on those. We also get the low-down on a ground-breaking, multi-disciplinary, behavioural intervention he’s been involved with to reduce harms from recreational drug-taking, that has been years in the making. Conor also lets us in on the secret of his own personal motivation for keeping fit and strong.

Dr Conor Linehan is a senior lecturer in Applied Psychology at University College Cork, Ireland, and an expert in the design and evaluation of technology to support education and health behaviours. He has a strong interest in how games and gamification can be useful in these contexts. He’s worked on a wide range of research projects, investigating the design of educational games, vision therapy interventions, dietary interventions, wearable sleep monitors, and online mental health interventions.

Find out more about Conor and his research interests

 You can find Conor’s biography, research interests and a full list of his publications on his profile page at University College Cork: http://research.ucc.ie/profiles/A011/conorlinehan

You can download all his publications from his Google Scholar profile: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=KXZj4J0AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao

or his Orchid profile: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7654-6697

Video

Conor talks about experience-centred design and evaluation of mHealth technology at the NUIG mHealth Conference 2016:

 “The Process Through Which We Make Things Is Important” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4by1LKp03pU

Follow Conor on twitter

@conorlinehan

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

eWorkLife podcast Season 1 Episode 4

Interview with Conor Linehan

Anna Cox

Hello, and welcome to a new episode of eWorkLife, a podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing and work life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and well being. I’m Anna Cox, Professor of human computer interaction at UCL in London, and your host for this episode.

Today’s episode, I’ll be talking to Dr Conor Linehan, an expert in the design and evaluation of technology to support education and health behaviours. We cover his journey from being a psychologist to a leading HCI specialist, working on the application of behavioural psychology principles to technology design, with the aim of creating ground-breaking health behaviour interventions. We also cover how we already know which games are best at encouraging exercise over the longer term, and how physical activity researchers might be on a bit of a wild goose chase if they focus on trying to improve on those. And we talk about how his desire to not get hurt when playing American football is a powerful personal motivator for keeping fit and strong. But before that, let’s listen to some top tips from other guests about how we can use technology to survive the digital age.

Paulina Bondaronek

I’m Paulina Bondaronek and my top tip for using technology to survive live in the digital age is combining pleasure to distract you from the pain. For example, listening to your favourite podcast whilst you’re running.

Marta Cecchinato

I’m Marta Cecchinato. I’m a senior lecturer in HCI at Northumbria University. My top tip for using technology to support your well being is to make sure technology is serving you in that specific moment of your life. Maybe you liked having work email on your phone during your commute to triage messages. If you suddenly start working from home, having an email on your phone can be an unwelcome disruption.

Anna Cox

Now to today’s guest. Dr Conor Linehan is a senior lecturer in Applied Psychology at University College Cork, Ireland, and an expert in the design and evaluation of technology to support education and health behaviours. He has a strong interest in how games and gamification can be useful in these contexts. He’s worked on a wide range of research projects, investigating the design of educational games, vision therapy interventions, dietary interventions, wearable sleep monitors, and online mental health interventions. So let’s get straight into it. Here’s my conversation with Conor.

Anna Cox

Welcome, Conor. Thanks for joining me today.

Conor Linehan 

Thanks for the invitation, Anna.

Anna Cox 

So, I know you started your university education by studying psychology at Maynooth University in Ireland. So can you tell me first, how you like got interested in psychology and why you decided to do that at univeristy rather than anything else.

Conor Linehan 

I didn’t realise we’re going all the way back today!

Anna Cox 

We’re going *all* the way back!

Conor Linehan 

To answer your question:  I er, I got in to study arts in university and I picked psychology as a subject to study, and I just found it really fascinating. Now, I suppose it’s the kind of subject, because it’s, in some ways, aimed towards a profession – you know there are professional psychologists – but it can be a very exciting thing to study because you know, you’re, you’re kind of carried along not just like learning something, academically, but learning a lot of professional skills as well. I think that really appealed to me at the time, but just, I think, from a very… I was very interested in video games, I was interested in sports, and you could see how psychology was kind of I think the science that seemed most useful in understanding those things and, you know…

Anna Cox 

Yeah, OK, and so at what point did you think, ‘Oh, when I finish this I’m going to do a PhD’?

Conor Linehan 

After I finished my university degree, I’ve spent a year working just, but not in an interesting job in customer service, and I decided I wanted to come back to university. I wanted to do masters, and I was literally about to go in to do the registration for a master’s course in sociology, and my supervisor for my final year project, in psychology, rang me up and said, “You know I’ve got this funded project, do you want to come back and do a research degree?’. And yeah, it was incredibly good look that happened that day and not the following day, and I was delighted to have funding to study instead of having to pay to study and I would get, you know, 2 years – it was originally a 2 year research master’s rather than a one year taught masters, and then I just did an extra year to turn it into a PhD kind of thing.

Anna Cox 

Okay, so was the topic for that already set out by the supervisor or was that something that you chose?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, it was. So it was part of a funded project about video games. It was, it was about, actually you know this is going back… This is kind of thing that, you know, we wouldn’t really study now.  It was about network latency and how it affects video game playing. And so the project was funded in 2004, when that was a big issue, and, you know, before we had broadband and all of that. And so it was a bigger project there was a bunch of PhD students from engineering or computer science who were working on network communication protocols and, you know, ways to minimise and harms to the experience and that way, but we were really interested in how psychology could be part of the problem. Like is it possible to think about how, I suppose, the complexity of gaming might make you less aware that fast…that problems are actually happening in the, in the game because you’re concentrating on solving problems. So, lots of expe… look we did lots of experiments around problem solving and puzzles in game playing, and looking at, you know, the distracting but also the disruptive potential of that but also, you know, basic research on how people solve those kinds of puzzles.

Anna Cox 

So we just sort of talked about the work you did for your PhD. A lot of your research since your PhD has been looking at computer games that you know have a health and wellbeing context. So, how did you sort of make that link, like to kind of looking at games in this other context rather than just looking at games for the sake of playing games or just like the general player experience.

Conor Linehan 

It’s interesting, isn’t it, so I’ve actually been, you know, when you do these kinds of things I suppose you take a moment to reflect on your career and why you’ve done things and I think there’s, there’s always a temptation to kind of put like there, you know, a narrative on if that makes sense. You know, and in some ways I was kind of thinking, maybe that, that in some ways, does a disservice to people doing their PhDs currently or early career researchers, who might think that people like us who are further on in their career had a really clear direction of where this was all going where.  I don’t think it is, I mean, some might. So like I was very, in my PhD, it was very much a behavioural psychology approach that we were taking. So my PhD was about video games, but it’s also about behavioural psychology. So I have always had that kind of interest in, like, how we can measure behaviour, really well and how we can get some control and prediction and using all the basic principles from behavioural psychology in technology design. And I think when you have that interest, it’s kind of natural, to think about the other things that those kinds of behavioural principles are useful for. So you often see kind of behaviour change interventions, built on behavioural principles or you see you’ve seen psychotherapy built on behavioural principles and you see, ah, health interventions, and education as well as another place where, you know, principles, like reinforcement tracking behaviour and measurement analysis and all of this and you know really controlled defining of target behaviours that you’re trying to change and measure, and using those principles to kind of get you to that direction. So I think it’s kind of a natural thing if you’ve got that background to see, well, we can use games which seem to be based on those kind of principles to, you know, to help in areas like education or health, which also have interventions built on those principles. So hopefully it makes sense but, but I suppose it kind of made a lot of sense to me. I suppose the first thing that I went to do after I finished my PhD, I went over to the University of Lincoln to work with Sean Lawson, and we were, for the first year working on educational games, and before we kind of got into, into looking at health applications of it. And I suppose that really, that experience of having to design the games – because before that I was just studying games –  but the experience of having to design them really made it obvious to me how useful the behavioural psychology stuff that I learned in my PhD was actually for game design, and for.. as was thinking through the process of well, if we’re going to build a game that is going to encourage some behaviour change whether it’s education, whether it’s health, then it needs to do these kinds of things, you know, X, Y & Z.

Anna Cox 

So you’re sort of like initial training in psychology has had quite a profound effect, I guess, on all the research you’ve gone on to do since and that, in that kind of bringing those principles through.

Conor Linehan 

Absolutely. The interesting thing is that I you know I went from being in a psychology department where I did my undergraduate degree – started my undergrad and my PhD –  to a computer science department where I worked for seven years. I, like the longer I stayed there I didn’t really see myself as a psychologist anymore. I was very much an HCI researcher you know doing HCI research. I was going to CHI, I was going to mobile HCI, CHI Play and going all these places, and I wasn’t doing any psychology conferences. And yet, like, it was everything I was doing was psychology. At its heart, it was taking, you know, some principles and applying them in that technology context, you know.  I was kind of involved in a lot of projects at Lincoln that weren’t mine so like Derek Foster he was at Lincoln. He, he was doing really cool research looking at and encouraging changes in energy consumption. And we did a lot of kind of fiddling with how the interventions would work to try to encourage people to, to lower their energy consumption. You have to present those messages in ways that were, you know, fun or nice rather than being really aversive. It was you know, all of those things, there was just.. psychology was in the model, it was just wasn’t obvious maybe on the first look.

Anna Cox 

So, I want to kind of get on to talking about some of the particular papers that you’ve written about the research that you’ve done. And one thing that I guess you perhaps won’t be surprised that I’m asking you about, is the paper that you’ve written about using video games to encourage exercise. So, so I guess that in that paper, you asked whether exergames are exercise. So what’s the answer, are they?

Conor Linehan 

I mean, there’s, I suppose when we were doing that project, we found that look, like, as what normally happens very annoyingly is that that’s a very complicated question, and there’s lots of different ways you could ask it and various ways you could answer it. Like, in order to answer that question… so it was a project that myself and Joe Marshall did together, and, and Joe did most of it I’ll be very honest, you know, I was going to talk to Joe and help them do the reviews and stuff but, but it was it was kind of largely his word guiding it. And, but I suppose we, we kind of we kind of saw in order to answer that question, there was actually four studies necessary, and we actually only published the first one. And so, because, because, in order to answer it like… that first paper is the one that we’ve actually published,  is a systematic review that looks at, in the moment when people are playing exercise, are they, demonstrating the kind of cardiovascular activity that we would have expected with comparable forms of exercise. So, you know, comparing it to jogging or dancing, or, you know, not necessarily really hardcore exercises but exercises that very much, raise your cardiovascular exertion levels. There are some examples in the literature, where games do bring players consistently to that level that’s, that is similar to jogging or dancing but its really rare. So it’s only under very specific circumstances, and the best kind of examples are generally with Dance Dance Revolution, which really does seem to encourage people to exercise in a way that’s very similar to if you say were to do a sport, or dancing or something like that. A lot of times, the research finds that, that, that the extra games just aren’t… they’re not consistently bringing people to that level of exertion is not that far above, sitting around or standing. And, but, but also like we found big problems with the research designs as well where a lot of studies that were claiming that exergames were better than something else, they were comparing it to something really boring. So they did this… so what really annoyed us when we were doing the review is that a lot of the times say, like, they compared a game, which seemed like a really fun task, with like walking on a treadmill.

Anna Cox 

So what would you have preferred them to be comparing it to?

Conor Linehan 

I suppose if you’re if you’re interested in the question of “is there something about a game that makes you want to exercise more?”, so if you’re if your game involves,  say it’s Dance Dance Revolution, then maybe what you should be comparing it with is dancing with the game,  rather than comparing it to walking on a treadmill.

Anna Cox 

Okay, yeah. So you said that you were really looking at, does it make you be as energetic or more energetic than these other activities but then you also kind of touch  on, does it encourage you to do this more and that’s like a different question, isn’t it?  So, in general, not so great at getting us to raise our heart rate, the way that we might need to. Are they effective at making us want to do exercise more, or engage in these kinds of activities more?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, and that’s a very good question, and it’s, it’s actually probably really is probably two questions as well because you could answer it like, does it encourage me right now to play tennis more than playing tennis those, or you could look at it as a longer term thing, you know, am I playing more regularly, which is kind of more, more of a behavioural way of looking at it which I like.  But we don’t really have those long term studies.  The systematic review that myself and Joe did, em, we didn’t study systematically those longer term questions of motivation like “do games over the longer term encourage more exercise than an alternative which isn’t game based, because we just didn’t get that study done. The first one had 120 papers. It took us years to do. So I mean, I think that’s the question that’s yet to be answered, there just aren’t a lot of long term studies really, or at least it wasn’t what we were looking at. What we found was that gernerally the studies of games as exercise were very short term, they were you know over a session, or over a few days.  Ah, the best ones were over a number of weeks, but there was very little that kind of looked that over months or over six months, and I think it was one study and in our… that we came across that looked at Dance Dance Revolution over six months and that was kind of the best one that we found in that respect. So, I mean anything that that can improve that kind of long term look at games as exercise interventions will be really valued, I think.

Anna Cox 

Yeah, yeah. Now I geuss when we’re thinking about games in health or for health, a lot of the time we tend to be thinking about gamification don’t we, so like, rather than real games, like just taking elements of games and putting them into some intervention. And I know you’ve been thinking about this quite a lot in your research. So do you think that this is effective? Are really good examples where gamification has been used to motivate people to go live healthy lives or engage in some kind of health behaviour?

Conor Linehan

It’s such a hard, such a hard question to answer!  (Laughs).  It’s not because there’s no answer, it’s because I’ve got like twenty answers that are all like bubbling in my head at the moment! I mean, here’s one of them. I mean, so I’ve actually gone back to your last question about games encouraging exercise over the longer term.  Like we have those things right, I think this is another thing that myself and Joe kind of got across about in some of those papers as well, like we have, we *have* this technology already called sports, so these are games that encourage exercise right! And they are really engaging over a long period of time so people will play soccer from the age of, you know three to like 65 or beyond even. So we have, so we have games technology that encourages exercise – sports!  We should be comparing exercise games with sports because that’s really the alternative, you know. Myself and Joe did some really cool research where we tried to make games that were you know – it’s all it’s all part of the same project that we’ve been describing where we’re kind of critial of the exergames being a bit boring and not you know… they’re a bit safe. So we kind of designed a lot of games that are a bit more dangerous, and therefore create a lot more, I suppose, engagement, and a lot more, they really raise your heart rate a lot. So, for example, one of the games that we designed, it’s called The Balance of Power, so it was played in a squash court, which, first of all, like in itself was a fantastic thing to be involved in. So we, we realised, well we realised that the, the Microsoft Kinect (sensor), if you put it in the middle of a squash court, kind of a quarter of the way in, it’s designed so that it picks up exactly the same size as the half of the squash court. So we put that in there, and we designed games that people could play in the squash court, and the Microsoft Kinect would actually pick up where in the courts they were, and we made some really simple games.  The one Balance of Power basically you’ve got four players, so to two teams of two, you have a half of the court that you have to stay in, and on a random schedule, you know once every 30 seconds, it would say 54321, if there was more people on your side of the court than the other side of the court, you win points. That’s the only rule! Everything else is fair game. So we have, we have the lights turned off, we had a really nice sountracks of Adrian Hazard from Nottingham who designed the sound, it was incredible. It was like being in a an arcade in the 1980s, and we had some projections on the back wall which recognised stylized versions of what was happening on the court, and what happened was you got this 54321, as that was happening… before it kind of counted down, you find the two teams kind of stalking each other, you know, feeling each other out. I mean it was 5432… you got this incredible rush of aggressive – aggression isn’t the right word – but kind of just wrestling into… they’re trying to each other to their side of the court, and, you know, what we found was that people were playing it for two minutes, three minutes, they couldn’t stand up anymore, they were so… they were so… they’re using all of their energy. Absolutely 100% of it to, you know wrestle a friend, trying to get them out of there,  bring him on their side, and you know, get a break for 20 seconds and do it again. And, and it just seemed like a much different thing than, you know, Wii Sports, which is kind of ah, you know… I suppose for me and Joe we’re both coming from this, you know, that’s, Wii Sports isn’t the kind of exergames that we’d like to see. We’d like to see people fighting in a squash court!  (Laughs).  Not everyone is obviously going to be into that kind of level of physical interaction, I realise that but, but I think we can be a bit more ambitious I suppose is the point. The point is that leaderboards only work, to an extent, you know, they tend to have a short term impact, So self determination theory is something that is really being, you know, latched on to in the, in human computer interaction in games research.  And its kind of like, it’s just, it’s a it’s a nice theory that, that in some ways identifies different types of motivation and different sources of motivation for why people might choose to do things right.  So, one of the nice things that self determination theory does, is it identifies the difference between how do they say… extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. So I think the kind of critique that you get from a lot of games researchers, is that kind of adding points and badges to things, encourages  this kind of extrinsic motivation, so people engage with that activity because they’re going to get some points and badges.  But that actually has limited value in the longer term, you’re going to get very sick of that, it kind of loses its motivation building.  The other thing it does is if you are already intrinsically motivated to do something is that adding those things to it can actually be quite patronising. So like, if you’re, you know, playing soccer, and you’re really good at it, and then you get like badges for like for every good tackle that you make, your kind of like well no, that doesn’t satisfy me.  Like, why am I doing the game? I want to be good at it, you know, so I suppose the thinking has turned towards more thinking about how you can use more intrinsic motivation, so how we can think more about people’s values and use that in how are we going to motivate people. So, I’m trying to find kind of those matches between what people’s values are the kind of activities that you’re, that they’re trying to engage in. So instead of just saying, well, ‘you did a thing you got a badge’, using kind of more sophisticated motivational techniques that are more to do with your err, what are the kinds of things you want to do and do the habit or behaviours that you’re doing actually match up with that?  And, you know, you can monitor the link between those two things. And maybe that’s a better way of motivating because what you’re really trying to do is trying to teach a longer term behaviour. So like with the exergamres, ideally what you would like to do is not get someone to play *a* game for a short amount of time, but teach people to go back to … to generalise them to pick up *any* game and enjoy it.  Or actually enjoyed running, which I know you do. But not everyone does!

Anna Cox 

So in terms of like thinking, like, trying to think about what motivates someone intrinsically, to do these sorts of things, it strikes me that what you’re saying is we need a deeper understanding of what drives people.  You know, like stickers and badges work for young children, like they’re *really* good for young children, but beyond that, they’re not. They’re not generally so effective or they are but there are other things that are better.  And I guess that kind of, I can see how that draws on your interest in psychology again, like getting to the understanding of what’s driving people what, what are their values, what do they want to do, what are their needs and so on.

Conor Linehan 

Absolutely, and the learning thing though for the app developer is is that those things are very individual. So it’s hard to kind of give everyone the same, you know, what’s the easy thing? You can give everyone a badge, you know, but it’s very difficult to give everyone that type of meaning in their life that they need. From I suppose a behavioural perspective like, these are things that we learn over our entire lives that… our values are things that, you know, you don’t learn in a day, you don’t learn in a weekend or by playing a game, there are things that are ingrained in how you’re raised and the kind of environment you grew up in and all the kind of experiences that you’ve had, and you don’t decide what your values that have been… They’re, you know, they’re things that you learn and are really…Well, the brain has to really guide how you behave in that way. So, you know, we can fight against those things, or we can try and understand them and work with them I suppose is kind of where we’ve got to. With, em, some of… actually some of the projects that I’m doing at the moment where we’re actually taking more of that kind of approach, and not around games around health interventions but…yeah.

Anna Cox 

Can you tell me about one of those then.

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, I can tell you about one that’s actually ongoing at the moment and we’ve been doing it for years and years now, because it turns out if you, if you want to design a behavioural intervention following like the behaviour change wheel, and, you know, that whole process, that takes years and years to do properly. So this is a project in UCC where I work – University College Cork – and it was kind of done in collaboration with the Students Union there, and the Student Health Services. There’s a bunch of people from Business Information Systems. A few of us in Applied Psychology,and the health service and public health. So a whole load of people involved in it, but it’s a project for drug taking among students. So, but what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to build an intervention around… that would encourage, harm reduction around drug taking. So high reduction is, you know, it’s a, it’s an approach, which involves a whole load of things, but the idea is that the outcome would be people would be suffering less harms from taking drugs, which obviously, part of that is, you know, in trying to encourage people not take drugs maybe at all. Yeah, but if you, if you are going to do it then to do in ways that, you know, I suppose are mindful and safe and… But, so, but the interesting thing about that project is that often the prevalence of drug taking among students at the moment is really high actuall.  Also at the same time, most of those people don’t really see it as problem, so like to do an intervention in that kind of context is quite challenging because if people don’t immediately see that they need to or want to change their behaviour, then what can you do, you know? What kind of levers you have, it’s different for somebody who wants to quit smoking and you’re trying to help them to do that, when they’re kind of very motivated and they see the damage that smoking is doing. It’s different for something where you don’t really see the harms in it. And that’s why we’ve kind of taken this approach that’s less about, you know, ‘I want to take less drugs, here’s my goal, I’ll just, you know…. Can you imagine getting badges? Oh you didn’t take drugs this weekend. You know, it’s not really something… I don’t think anyone would appreciate that.

Anna Cox 

A streak of three clean days, or whatever.

Conor Linehan 

Yeah.  It would be so patronizing like, you know. Em, so, what we’ve done in that project is kind of go more to like drawing on actually psychological therapy, some techniques that were developed in the form of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is behaviour therapy.  It’s like cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness based stress reduction or any of those kind of behavioural therapies, which involves… So, what we’re doing involves asking people about their own values and then, like, asking them to reflect on how their behaviour aligns with those, and then giving them skills to apply back – kind of reflective decision making in moments when they are actually making decisions, so it’s kind of like an educational thing, I suppose.  It’s kind of skill building, and then now that you have the skill, look at how you can apply it in your own life.  But you could see how a similar approach could be effective, regardless of what the behaviour is, you know. I mean it was great that we got years and years to think this through. It was a very difficult problem.  The intervention exists now and we’re about to do a trial, which is great because it’s taken a long time to get there. But, I suppose, you know, you can see how it’s a very different approach. You know, it’s not always probably going to be necessary, and there will still be situations where just logging your behaviour, you know, and keeping an eye on it will be really useful, but I suppose in situations where maybe it’s kind of people are finding it more difficult, or don’t see the need for change, then that more kind of values based approach I think it probably is necessary.

Anna Cox 

So can you tell us a bit more about the intervention itself? So is it something where you sort of sit down and you work through this online programme, and you learn something?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, so it’s it’s kind of – I hadn’t really imagined speaking about this at this length in this talk! But it’s great that you’re, you know, everyone’s gonna be delighted I’m promoting it. And so the project is called MyUse M-Y-U-S-A if you want to look at it. Yeah, so, it involves a website.  So it’s a website but it’s also an app depending on whether you’re on a laptop or on phone. At the start, it kind of screens you basically for, how often or frequently you,  that you take drugs, and it and it gives you a different experience based on whether you’re like, not taking them all, occasionally, or quite lot: it completely changes, what, what the intervention is depending on on your kind of scores on that Screening Questionnaire. So that in itself is quite nice because often problems don’t do that. You know, they assume like  the same kind of thing will work for everyone. And then at the start, there’s a chunk where it kind of aims, it kind of takes information from you, and then gives you feedback about it, kind of like a social norm, where it’s like, asks you for information about your own drug taking and it compares that with other people who’ve completed the survey, but also, you know, it’ll publish the information. And so the idea is that it gives you some context for your own behaviour, and then it goes on, and does these skill building activities that are based on Behaviour Therapy. So they involve videos and exercises where it asks you to kind of fill in information and it uses that information later on. So you might have to declare a goal, you’re one of, one of my goals is, you know, or I want to, you know, do well in college, I want to do, I want to, you know, make the first team for sports team.  And it uses them then to ask you later on how are your behaviours going to match up with that, and what, what can you do if a situation arises where you think that the behaviours that you’re engaging in maybe don’t match with your values. It doesn’t involve the kind of data and tracking of behaviour I suppose is the interesting thing, because we talked about that and we realised that it didn’t really make sense to do that. It’s not the kind of thing you would track every day, the vast majority of people do it the odd time, you know, every weekend. I’m not suggesting the vast majority people take drugs; the vast majority of people who take drugs do it at the weekend!

Anna Cox 

So it sounds like this intervention that you’ve created, could be adapted – or maybe it can be used just the way it is – for supporting people in adopting other health behaviours, whether that is increasing their physical activity or eating more healthily. Like this whole idea of thinking about, what are your goals and values and how does your habits, your lifestyle and your behaviour really support you achieving those? So, is it something that, that someone could just use for something else or would that require a bit of adaptation?

Conor Linehan 

I mean, I mean, technologically, you could adapt it quite easily, because the, the way it’s been built. Yeah, absolutely. But the problem is the content is very specialised and this is, this has to do with, you know, the behaviour change wheel process that we’ve gone through. It’s really identifying what’s likely to work as an intervention with this behaviour with this type of behaviour, given what we know about this behaviour. So it would require a little bit… so if you were going to change to healthier eating, I think there would be, you know, there’s different environmental or contextual cues that are going to cue you sticking to or not sticking to your goals in that kind of context. So a little bit of work I think probably might need to be done to find what the most appropriate possible behaviour change techniques would be for that particular behaviour. That’s, I mean that’s the thing that’s one of the things I really value about the whole process really is genuinely the amount of time it forces you to think about the behaviour, so not trying to just use the same process on every single behaviour because they will be different, and I suppose different stresses on people in relation to different behaviours.

Anna Cox 

So the general principle could be used or the kind of approach could be used to develop interventions, but then it’s a very… it’s kind of specific for the problem that you’ve been addressing?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah I mean I think the general idea of having it based on values amd looking at, you know, and the whole process of considering your values in relation to your behaviour, and then also like having that as a skill that you apply in the rest of your life, so that you can draw on that, whenever you think you’re making a bad decision. I think all that stuff is totally generalizable. And it does, it does feel like something more worthwhile than putting badges and points on things, and I think people could go away with it from that intervention, having learned something, not just today, drugs, but actually will be useful in a lot of different ways. If you give people skills to, I suppose, make decisions in a more considered way then that could have lots of rippling impacts on people’s lives and I think, I think those are the kinds of goals that it’s like with when we  we’re talking about exercise earlier, trying to encourage like a love for exercise, you know, and, and, you know, really you know attending to what you liked about the experience of exercising is that’s the kind of thing that’s going to generalise and actually encourage a change in behaviour in the longer term.

Anna Cox 

So it sounds like you, you know in your work, this engagement with really understanding people and using psychological theory to help you design interventions, it’s working really well for you. Like, it’s actually sort of ticked lots of boxes and pulling your interests together. And what are the things that make it really difficult to do that kind of research?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, so, it’s about lots of things. It takes a lot of time to do that as well. And it genuinely is that my youth project has been going on for four years and we’ve had basically three full time researchers working on that full time. So you can imagine, it’s taken a lot of funding, you know, just be crass about it but a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of work. There’s no kind of quick fix solution I suppose if, if you’re interested, but I suppose the benefit then is that, you know, we’re quite confident that it’s going to actually be useful so it’s not a gamble in the same way that many other things would be.  Like any sort of learning, it’s gonna cause discomfort, and so you need to kind of be set up in a way that you can deal with that in the research process. We have a clinical psychologist on the team, which is fantastic. One of the postdocs is a clinical psychologist, amazing does everything Bacillus is fantastic. I think it’d be very difficult to to do that kind of work, if you weren’t, if you didn’t have people from that background, because you’re putting participants in situations where, you know, maybe uncomfortable stuff is coming up and it needs a processes in place to deal with that, so that you’re not putting the researcher in a really awkward situation or you know kind of causing harm for the person and they go away thinking, ‘Oh, you’re just, you just, you know, you just raise things that I feel about myself that I’m not happy about, and then you just left me.’ An element of that is always going to be necessary if you’re actually trying to encourage that kind of long, like, actual change in behaviours. So, yeah, I think I think that’s the big challenge as well, is that actually, this idea of, we can change behaviour just with some free badges and and some points, and not having really big psychological impact on people, you know, it’s probably overly optimistic, you know, we’ve got… we are putting people in weird situations anyway.

Anna Cox 

In the work that you’ve done on the way to kind of creating this thing, you’ve obviously had to engage with prospective users of this kind of technology. And so I expecte that at some point you’ve asked them, sort of how they feel about having a piece of technology, facilitate this, where as it’s perhaps it’s the sort of situation that many people would expect that they might engage with a therapist about. So do people tend to be open to this idea of technology taking this role?

Conor Linehan 

They do and it’s because things are probably a bit better in the UK than they are in Ireland,  like our services are atrocious, so like if you’ve been really frustrated by the lack of services, then if something will be available to you tomorrow that you could actually access and might be helpful I think, yet people see the benefit in that. Now, they would prefer therapist maybe, but it’s just not going to be. It’s not, it’s not feasible, I suppose people are very open to the idea that, at least they get a service if we do it digitally and we do it well. I mean I think with some of these issues people who maybe they might avoid going to real world services as well and…

Anna Cox 

But I guess the flip side of it is that someone might be concerned that, you know, this computer system is gathering data about them and knowing stuff, not… both about their behaviour and about their innermost thoughts and values and so on. Do you think there are things we need to worry about there?

Conor Linehan 

See, I think we should be worried but the participants don’t seem to be as worried about it – they probably don’t understand enough about it and that’s why.  I mean like the way we build our system I didn’t have to worry about it.  It doesn’t log anything, it doesn’t log things in a way that’s in any way identifiable, but I think that’s a really good question in terms of like us as a university research group you can probably trust that we’re not doing something nefarious with data but if this was, if the same approach was then taken by a commercial company… And yeah I’d imagine that we should have concerns about especially the more personal this data becomes, the more maybe worried we should be about it.

Anna Cox 

We’re coming towards the end of our time, and I’m kind of curious as to how your research has impacted your own life.  Are there ways in which you made use of technology to keep yourself healthy, or are there perhaps skills or knowledge that you’ve come across, perhaps on this project you’ve been talking about, about how to change your own behaviour and that’s something that, that you use alot?

Conor Linehan 

(Laughs) I don’t use any. Maybe, maybe this is a natural consequence of really digging into, into, like how it worked and what the value is and stuff like that and maybe I just internalise all this stuff, in a way that like, I mean I, during the lockdown, I just got into this really weird habit where I just worked out in my sitting room every day. I don’t record anything, I’ve never, I’ve never tracked my runs, I’m not gonna say that I don’t think it’s valuable like I mean, like other people get value from it, but I, in my own life, even though I am a researcher on this topic, I don’t.

Anna Cox 

Is it just like you’re naturally quite motivated to, to engage in physical activity as an example, because you know how much you enjoy it?

Conor Linehan 

Yeah, I think, I think that’s the, that’s it and I’m probably kind of doing the thing about attending to the exercise as an enjoyable thing in itself rather than trying to have some sort of externalised motivation for it, so I don’t see the need for that externalised motivation.  On a longer timescale, through the reason why I exercise so much is because I play American football, and I love it so much that I’m like, that’s how much I love that game – that I’m willing to do all of this work, you know, so like that is a game encouraging me to exercise, it’s just not as highly technologically oriented. Like that game you just have to be in great shape or you get hurt. So that’s a really good motivation in itself! (Laughs.)

Anna Cox 

(Laughs.) Indeed. (Laughs.) Okay, so I think we’ll wrap it up there. So thanks very much.  It was a really interesting discussion. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.

Conor Linehan 

Thanks Anna.  Yeah that was a very different discussion than I was expecting to be honest but it was, it was really interesting as well and I thought, you know, kind of, you made me think quite a lot there. Yeah, thanks for that.

Anna Cox

Thanks so much to Conor Linehan. You can find him @ConorLinehan on Twitter. And you can find a link to his website and access to the show notes for this episode on our website, eWorkLife.co.uk. And there you’ll also find more evidence based tips for using technology to support work and wellbeing, and also an opportunity to try out our new eWorkLife radio app.  I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @AnnaCox_   If you enjoyed this episode. Please tell your friends. And you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks as always to our producer Clare Casson.

This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network.

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com