The Root Effect: A Model For Behavioral Empathy

A holistic approach to understanding the underlying factors that help or hinder behavior change.

Written BY

Jason Rivas

The guy with a vision for how to use technology to amplify our ability to change.

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December 1, 2020

At the core of every effective health-related program or intervention designed to change behavior lies empathy. As Douglas Stone describes in his book Difficult Conversations, empathy is “…the deepest form of understanding another person. [It] involves a shift from my observing how you seem on the outside, to my imagining what it feels like to be you on the inside, wrapped in your skin with your set of experiences and background…”

And so it’s with this in mind that you can begin to look at and analyze behavior change from a more holistic perspective. One that considers not only the outward signs and symptoms someone is experiencing, but also the underlying roots that feed the positive and negative behaviors that contribute to those signs and symptoms.

The roots I'm referring to are the sometimes hidden, often complex mysteries of why we do or don’t do what we do. Things like our values, beliefs, self-esteem, and identity. Acknowledging the existence of these roots is imperative to truly understand the needs of your audience and the necessary approach to effectively changing their behavior.

The Limitations of Canned Programming

What I call The Root Effect paints a simple but clear visual of these two sides of behavior change and how the underlying issues and individual characteristics of your audience can be connected to health behaviors and subsequently, related symptoms.

Over the past 18 years, our team at Maia Synergy has been discovering new ways our behavior-based content management system can dig below the surface of individual participants to gently uncover their behavioral roots and guide them toward a state of action based on what we find.

This is in complete contrast to offering canned programs where you generalize your content and deliver a one-size-fits-all approach that is typically aimed at the action-oriented. These are the folks who have already started making a change or who are ready to take action right away. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with building a program for this particular audience, they are after all, the easiest group to target. The problem is, this approach neglects a significant portion of the population who are not yet ready to take action and in many cases often have more complex, rooted issues that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot possibly address.

At Maia, we’re looking to impact change on a wider scale and reach populations that are often overlooked. The Root Effect helps us transition away from canned programs and frame individual behaviors as complex trees with underlying root systems that represent the determinants of those behaviors. Roots are often hidden from those around us who have no idea what’s beneath the surface, and sometimes they’re even hidden from ourselves, which can present itself in the form of denial or lack of awareness. This model can quickly give you a mental picture of the complexity of factors that could be influencing the behaviors of your program participants. Note that the diagram below highlights eight possible chronic diseases along with some of their related symptoms that could become a consequence of not eating a healthy diet.

The Root Effect Diagram
Example Root Effect Diagram

Now let’s break down a few characteristics of the root system so you have a better idea of the impact they can have on the behavior change process.

Root Size Matters

Root issues can exist in various sizes, which means that some roots consume a great deal of mental and physical resources as an individual strives to control or manage their behavior, while others require far fewer. In the example diagram above, the thickness of each root exhibits its level of significance to the individual.

Damaged Roots

There is the potential for roots to become damaged, sometimes to the point of them being near irreparable. Take for example someone whose self-efficacy (belief in their ability to change) has been broken in-part by a previous relationship where their partner was unsupportive in many ways and consider how that could have a negative impact on any attempt to change their behavior.

That’s a damaged root resulting from some form of trauma.

Exposed Roots

Through questioning and conversation, roots can be exposed, and doing so can help shed light on related issues that are acting as obstacles to behavior change. In the example below, understanding someone’s beliefs about eating a healthy diet can help clarify why they’re carrying a particularly negative attitude about that behavior.

Exposed roots can help clarify underlying issues.

Tangled Roots

Oftentimes, one or more roots overlap or become entangled, meaning a combination of factors are playing off each other and leading to favorable or less than favorable outcomes. In the example below, a rural or remote location is impacting someone’s ability to establish a meaningful offline support system that can help provide the social influence they need to stay motivated and maintain their new behavior.

Multiple roots can impact each other in complex ways

A Call to Action

Those are just a few examples of how an individual root system can impact the effectiveness of your behavior change program. Although The Root Effect is a simple model, it can be effective at helping build behavioral empathy and to better understand the individuals you are trying to serve. The truth is, roots are the source of life and they form the story of each individual you are attempting to help. Ignoring or undernourishing them, can at the extreme end, have fatal results. So anyone looking to programmatically impact human behavior digitally or through some other form of intervention, should be designing ways to navigate and uncover the complexities of their participant’s root systems. Doing so can help stimulate positive growth for those wanting to develop new behaviors as well as help supply the answer to successful change for us all.

Further Reading
Digital Transformation of the eHealth Behavior Management Model
It's a critical time to leverage available health information to educate and motivate people wanting to change.
December 1, 2020