Social Cognitive Theory and How I Gave Up Diet Coke

Diet Coke and I did everything together. Long walks. Watched TV. Dinners out. Even climbed trees together. Our breakup has been very rough.

Last week I decided to try once more to get Diet Coke out of my life. She has been my best friend since I was a child. I would drink her at breakfast while I watched I Love Lucy. I’d drink her at lunch during Days of Our Lives. I’d drink her every chance I got! I loved her. And if she was good enough for Paula Abdul, then by God she’s good enough for me!

But as I write more about healthy choices and work with clients dedicated to healthier lifestyles, I have begun scrutinizing my own unhealthy behaviors. And looking down at five cans of Diet Coke in my trash can at the end of the workday started me wondering, “Is this too much Diet Coke?”

Last weekend, my sister brought the kids to Atlanta for a trip to LegoLand. When she ordered a Coke Zero at lunch, her partner gave her a look of disapproval that confused me. “What’s so bad about Coke Zero,” I thought? Then the thought occurred to me again – “You probably drink too much Diet Coke. Think about how little water you drink every day. You know you SHOULD drink more water, right? Less Diet Coke won’t kill you.”

I asked my sister why she was getting the stink-eye of disapproval after she proclaimed how LONG it had been since she had her last soda. Apparently, their home has become a soda-free zone!

The thought was revolutionary to me. A SODA-FREE zone?!?!? We can do that? Can we still be Americans if we DO? Being the competitive little brother that I am, I thought “I can totally do that too.” And so began my journey to a life without soda.

Many factors affected this new behavior—my personal mission to live a healthier life; negative stigmas associated with artificial sweeteners; and seeing that my own sister’s family had been successful in their attempts to drink less soda.

As I studied The Social Cognitive Theory this week, I was pleased to observe that it so fully addresses the broad range of complexities affecting behavioral change. It states that there is a reciprocal relationship between three key factors affecting change—the individual, the environment and behaviors.

As individuals, we are a sum of our thoughts and emotions. Each of our brains processes our learning experiences and attaches emotions to situations differently. Each of us has different capacities to take action based on what we know. For example, aspartame and artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas have been widely linked to cancer in lab rats. I know that poses a risk – even though technically, I’m a Lab Monkey. But without that knowledge, I would not feel compelled to change my behavior.

Environmental factors must also be considered. For instance, it’s harder for many poorer inner city communities to take advantage of fresh produce due to the lack of grocery stores with healthy options in their neighborhoods. Even the most savvy person with the best of intentions to adapt healthy eating habits will find it difficult if the environment is not conducive to their success. In this case, both economic and geographic factors create an environment that works against the individual. Environmental factors can also be social, political, and cultural in nature.

And finally, behavior is no longer seen as simply an end result in this model. Behavior is actually seen from a broader perspective than just the individual. Here, it is seen in its collective power. Behaviors of larger groups and cultures actually creates behavior change on an individual level. Consider the number of gluten-free or organic options available on the supermarket shelves today. Manufacturers are responding to the growing demand for these products in the face of consumers’ behavior changes.


The Communications Cycle – In It For the Long Haul

Because of the reciprocal quality of these key factors – individual, environment and behavior – it is difficult to assess precisely where communication can be most effective under the social cognitive theory.

Yet, I would propose that this is precisely where communication serves to demonstrate its most powerful role. Targeting the complexities of so many unique influencers is a daunting task and it calls for a long-range commitment to resolving fundamental problems. It requires education of individuals and groups. It requires the development of key messaging to shift perspectives. It requires addressing environmental obstacles such as geography, economics, and culture. And it requires consistency.

Today, too many campaigns focus on short-term goals. Companies and organizations strive to affect small achievable changes because they are easier to measure. Those changes are indeed valuable but only so far as they contribute to larger social change.


How Lab Monkey Design Can Help

As a healthy business, Lab Monkey Design’s mission is to educate and empower people to live healthier lives.

We develop marketing strategies and comprehensive brand solutions to target the underlying challenges keeping people from making healthy changes in their lives..

We can help your audiences learn to take better care of themselves through education, programming, and support. Contact me if you’re interested in making the world a healthier place.

And finally – regarding my Diet Coke fast – I’m on day ten. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime – I beg of you – share any tips and ideas in the comments section to keep me from back-sliding into that sweet syrupy carbonated lake of aspartame!