UCL News


Spotlight on Professor Susan Michie

24 September 2015

This week the spotlight is on Professor Susan Michie, Director, UCL Centre for Behaviour Change and Health Psychology Research Group, UCL Brain Sciences.

Professor Susan Michie

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am Director of UCL's Centre for Behaviour Change and of its Health Psychology Research Group.

The UCL Centre for Behaviour Change brings together academic expertise across a wide range of disciplines since no one discipline can provide a comprehensive understanding of behaviour and how to change it. The centre also works to translate that expertise to a wide audience, across the public, commercial and charitable sectors as well as to the general public.

We seek to bring scientific and wider academic understanding to address the many social problems we face, ranging across health, environmental, well-being, safety and many other topics. We hold public events on wide ranging topics and provide training of many kinds, both of which are well attended and usually oversubscribed. We also provide consultancy and collaborate in multidisciplinary research projects.

The Health Psychology Research Group consists of researchers and PhD students conducting studies applying the methods, evidence and theories of psychology to (i) preventing ill health, (ii) helping people manage illness and long-term conditions and (iii) supporting healthcare staff and organisations to deliver high quality health services.

Examples are evidence-based professional practice, e.g. hand-hygiene among hospital staff and reducing risk factors among the general population, e.g. smoking cessation and preparing for pandemic flu. We also investigate innovative methods for developing and evaluating interventions to change behaviour. Examples are the development of internet and smartphone apps, and frameworks such as the Behaviour Change Wheel and a taxonomy of 93 behaviour change techniques.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I have been at UCL for 14 years. Before this I combined two posts: research into psychological aspects of genetic testing at King's College London and providing a clinical and consultancy service to healthcare staff in the Occupational Health and Safety Unit of the Royal Free NHS Trust.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I don't think I feel proud of work achievements but I do feel pleased with some. Especially when people are from different disciplines and countries, it is important to put the time and effort into getting to know people and ensuring everyone feels valued and effective within the collaboration. 

Paying attention to the social and emotional dimensions of people and relationships and ensuring that collaborative work is rewarding is key to success. It may be my background as a clinical psychologist or my intrinsic interest in people that has led me to develop these skills.

Tell us about a project you are working on now that is top of your to-do list?

I have put together an exciting collaboration of behavioural, computer and information scientists for a large and ambitious project, which is the main thing I want to achieve before I retire or die - whichever is earlier!

Policy makers, scientists and practitioners tackling big social issues such as obesity, smoking, infection transmission and climate change, want to answer the question: 'What interventions are effective in changing what behaviours for whom in what circumstances, and how?'. Interventions to change behaviours of individuals, communities and populations are complex; though some are effective, many are not and we lack knowledge about how they have their effect and why they vary across behaviours, populations and contexts. 

Although vast amounts of evidence are published, it is in unstructured and heterogeneous formats. This severely limits its use to answer practical questions. This project investigates how best to organise usable evidence to answer the key question: 'What interventions are effective in changing what behaviours for whom in what circumstances, and how?'.

Answering this will require the reasoning of human experts combined with the power of the computer to process evidence rapidly at scale. Behavioural, information, and computer scientists will collaborate to develop three innovations:

1. We will develop a behaviour change 'ontology' (framework) linking intervention components, mechanisms of change, contexts and behavioural outcomes which the computer will populate with evidence;

2. Behaviour change experts will interact with an intelligent computer system to interpret the evidence and propose new explanations of why interventions do or do not change behaviour; and

3. A dynamic, interactive and open-access system will continually update evidence, providing contemporary real-world knowledge to a wide range of users.

Organising the world literature in real-time will not only assist policy-makers and practitioners, but will be an essential tool for scientists studying behaviour and behaviour change.

What advice would you give your younger self?

My younger self did many things that might be considered unwise:

  1. I jumped around in my professional career, e.g. MSc in clinical psychology, DPhil in developmental psychology, a job in health psychology. I had two jobs for about 11 years, one research and one clinical, and then in my mid-40's, having become an international expert in psychological aspects of genetic testing, I changed completely when I was offered a post at UCL and started again studying behaviour change.
  2. I spent a good third of my time not applying myself to my research but taking on many 'outside' positions such as president of two different professional organisations (which covered 10 years), being on the national executive of my trade union, doing consultancy work for the Department of Health and other organisations, spending eight years with the National Institute of Health and Social Care Excellence (NICE) helping to develop public health guidelines, and many other such roles.
  3. I worked on what seemed interesting at the time with people I liked to work with rather than think strategically and long-term about my career.

However, I wouldn't advise my younger self to do any of these things differently. They have all been very enriching and enjoyable and I think they have usefully informed my research. Sadly, I think today's pressures and the emphasis on universities as businesses undermine scholarship and spending time on a range of activities that broaden one's horizons and ultimately contribute to the betterment of society.

The one thing I would have liked to have done differently would have been to find ways of spending more time with my three children in their early teenage years.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

That in my early days I was terrified of speaking in public, but I forced myself to take on positions where I would have to in order to get over it.

What is your favourite place?

Havana, Cuba.