Leveraging Self-Affirmation to Improve Behavior Change: A Mobile Health App Experiment


mHealth interventions can help to improve the physical well-being of participants. Unfortunately, mHealth interventions often have low adherence and high attrition. One possible way to increase adherence is instructing participants to complete self-affirmation exercises. Self-affirmation exercises have been effective in increasing many types of positive behaviors. However, self-affirmation exercises often involve extensive essay writing, a task that is not easy to complete on mobile platforms.

This study aimed to adapt a self-affirmation exercise to a form better suited for delivery through a mobile app targeting healthy eating behaviors, and to test the effect of differing self-affirmation doses on adherence to behavior change goals over time.

We examined how varied self-affirmation doses affected behavior change in an mHealth app targeting healthy eating that participants used for 28 days. We divided participants into the 4 total conditions using a 2×2 factorial design. The first independent variable was whether the participant received an initial self-affirmation exercise. The second independent variable was whether the participant received ongoing booster self-affirmations throughout the 28-day study. To examine possible mechanisms through which self-affirmation may cause positive behavior change, we analyzed three aspects of self-affirmation effects in our research. First, we analyzed how adherence was affected by self-affirmation exercises. Second, we analyzed whether self-affirmation exercises reduced attrition rates from the app. Third, we examined a model for self-affirmation behavior change.

Analysis of 3556 observations from 127 participants indicated that higher doses of self-affirmation resulted in improved adherence to mHealth intervention goals (coefficient 1.42, SE 0.71, P=.04). This increased adherence did not seem to translate to a decrease in participant attrition (P value range .61-.96), although our definition of attrition was conservative. Finally, we examined the mechanisms by which self-affirmation may have affected intentions of behavior change; we built a model of intention (R2=.39, P<.001), but self-affirmation did not directly affect final intentions (P value range .09-.93).

Self-affirmations can successfully increase adherence to recommended diet and health goals in the context of an mHealth app. However, this increase in adherence does not seem to reduce overall attrition. The self-affirmation exercises we developed were simple to implement and had a low cost for both users and developers. While this study focused on an mHealth app for healthy eating, we recommend that other mHealth apps integrate similar self-affirmation exercises to examine effectiveness in other behaviors and contexts.