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Optimizing habit development with adaptive digital interventions

   UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in Socially Intelligent Artificial Agents

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  Mr Jared de Bruin  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

For instructions on how to apply, please see: PhD Studentships: UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in Socially Intelligent Artificial Agents.


  • Esther Papies:  School of Psychology
  • Mark Bowles: PUL Hydration

Aims and Objectives

This project will establish key features of just-in-time adaptive interventions (JITAIs; Nahum-Shani et al., 2018) that contribute to habit formation. While JITAIs have been shown to be more effective than statically controlled interventions (Wang & Miller, 2020), little is known about the precise interaction of adaptive intervention features and psychological processes that lead to lasting health habits. The research will be conducted in the domain of hydration, i.e., water drinking. Water drinking is an ideal domain to study the effect of JITAIs, given that water drinking is a relatively simple health behaviour, compared to, for example, eating or physical activity; water drinking needs to happen frequently each day, so that it is susceptible to habit formation; and indeed, healthy water drinkers seem to rely heavily on habits (Rodger et al., 2021). However, many people are underhydrated, with implications for cognitive functioning, mood, and physical health (e.g., risk of diabetes, overweight, kidney damage; see Muñoz et al., 2015; Perrier et al., 2020).

Working with the PUL smartcap and accompanying smartphone app, we will examine how habit formation occurs using an intervention that provides goal setting, monitoring, feedback, as well as situated and personalized reminders. We will address questions such as: Which intervention features predict habit formation, and how can the intervention be optimized to facilitate this process? Given that habits form in response to stable context cues, do reminders at specific, fixed times facilitate habit formation compared to “smart”, adaptive reminders? What is the role of rewarding feedback in habit formation and habit maintenance (cf. Papies et al., 2020)? Does the intervention lead to “specific” habit formation (i.e., drinking water with the PUL device) or to “generalized” habit formation (i.e., drinking water)? Which intervention features (e.g., dynamic goals, smart reminders, visual reward signals) or intervention effects (e.g., reduced dehydration symptoms) predict continued engagement with the app? In addressing these questions, we will conduct research that speaks to JITAI development, as well as to fundamental psychological questions about situated learning and habit change.

Methods, Outputs, and Impact

We will work closely with the PUL Hydration team to conduct both qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods experimental studies to assess the questions outlined above in real-life settings. We will present and publish our findings as three empirical subprojects (averageing one per year) in both Computer Science and Psychology conferences and journals. In addition to academic and industry users, the findings on how to develop healthy water drinking habits will be of interest to the general public. The Healthy Cognition Lab regularly engages in knowledge exchange activities, which the student would participate in. We also regularly engage with industry and third-sector partners, such as Danone or the British Dietetic Association. Finally, the student on this project would work closely with other ECR lab members working on hydration, and on healthy and sustainable eating behaviours.


Muñoz, C. X., Johnson, E. C., McKenzie, A. L., Guelinckx, I., Graverholt, G., Casa, D. J., … Armstrong, L. E. (2015). Habitual total water intake and dimensions of mood in healthy young women. Appetite, 92, 81–86.
Nahum-Shani, I., Smith, S. N., Spring, B. J., Collins, L. M., Witkiewitz, K., Tewari, A., & Murphy, S. A. (2018). Just-in-Time Adaptive Interventions (JITAIs) in Mobile Health: Key Components and Design Principles for Ongoing Health Behavior Support. Annals of Behavioral Medicine: A Publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 52(6), 446–462.
Papies, E. K., Barsalou, L. W., & Rusz, D. (2020). Understanding Desire for Food and Drink: A Grounded-Cognition Approach. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(2), 193–198.
Perrier, E. T., Armstrong, L. E., Bottin, J. H., Clark, W. F., Dolci, A., Guelinckx, I., Iroz, A., Kavouras, S. A., Lang, F., Lieberman, H. R., Melander, O., Morin, C., Seksek, I., Stookey, J. D., Tack, I., Vanhaecke, T., Vecchio, M., & Péronnet, F. (2020). Hydration for health hypothesis: A narrative review of supporting evidence. European Journal of Nutrition.
Rodger, A., Wehbe, L. H., & Papies, E. K. (2021). “I know it’s just pouring it from the tap, but it’s not easy”: Motivational processes that underlie water drinking. Appetite, 164, 105249.
Wang, L., & Miller, L. C. (2020). Just-in-the-Moment Adaptive Interventions (JITAI): A Meta-Analytical Review. Health Communication, 35(12), 1531–1544.
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