Milkman Describes the Science of Behavior Change at Foltyn Seminar

April 07, 2022 Written by Colin Heffinger | Photos by Kristen Troy

On Wednesday, March 23, the University of Delaware’s College of Health Sciences hosted its 6th annual Foltyn Seminar featuring a presentation by Dr. Katherine Milkman, Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Milkman explained decades of research suggesting that behavioral change comes most readily when understanding what stands before success and tailoring a solution to that roadblock.

Roughly 400 people attended the presentation, both in-person and virtually. The video has been posted online with access here. The seminar exists through the generosity of Ted Foltyn and Kathi Hetrick Foltyn. Both were UD graduates for the class of 1981 and have been funding and coordinating the Foltyn Seminars over the past 6 years with the organizational direction of Jillian Trabulsi, chair of the Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition.

Sharing insights from her best-selling book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, Milkman highlighted key findings from her career studying behavioral change. Utilizing her further background in engineering, Milkman explored behavioral issues from a different perspective by first identifying the obstacles and realizing they play a role in creating an effective solution.

People often know what changes they wish to make, but not how to put them into action and effectively plan for obstacles. Milkman’s presentation explained strategic methods for identifying and overcoming common barriers to change such as impulsivity, procrastination, and confidence, to name a few.

“When we want to create a particular kind of change in life, we often look for a single, simple solution,” Milkman said. “But time and again in my research, we develop better results when we take the time to think about obstacles to change and tailor our solutions this way. One of the big barriers we face is that it is not pleasant in the moment to do whatever it is that is good for us in the long run. This creates a disconnect because if we think we can just push through and focus without giving into instant gratification, we end up disappointing ourselves. Instead, if we can find ways to make change fun, it becomes more sustainable and leads to better results.”

After presenting her research, Milkman participated in a Q&A session where she provided further insight on overcoming barriers to behavioral change.

“Developing motivation for positive change can be increased through social norms,” Milkman said. “We respond very strongly to social norms because we want to fit in. If someone starts hanging out with a lot of straight A students, they can see the differences in their priorities and the value it brings. This can propel meaningful change to be similar.”

Dr. Katherine Milkman's best-selling book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, explains evidence-backed solutions for overcoming barriers to making sustainable positive change.

The Foltyns established this fund in February 2013 to recruit exceptional speakers for delivery of pertinent information to the campus and community on topics relevant to behavioral health, nutrition, wellness, and disease prevention. Additionally, the Foltyns hope to influence others in the community who may also give back to UD through similar contributions, such as funding scholarships.

Kathi Foltyn has worked in healthcare for the past 41 years and recently retired. The past 15 years of her career were spent working with patients facing dialysis, which built her passion for supporting those who live with chronic disease. Ted Foltyn has served as an adjunct faculty member for Horn Entrepreneur over the past 6 years and developed his background in the marketing side of health and medicine.

“Dr. Milkman’s message was so practical,” Kathi Foltyn reflected. ““Human nature being what it is, we need constant vigilance. You can’t just make a change for a few weeks and forget about it. When you are living your life fully and you have good health, you have freedom and choice. We take that for granted. When you don’t have that, you understand how devastating it is. Lack of self-efficacy and ability to create positive change has a financial, physical, and mental impact.”

The Foltyns were impressed with the results of presentation, citing broad value to students and employees throughout the university. Dr. Milkman’s speech provided a relatable focus that incorporated experiences and solutions she used in her own life to make effective change.

“I am thrilled with the impact this lecture series has made,” Ted Foltyn commented. “These seminars have evolved, starting from nutrition alone, and now onto broader health topics. The interest level across the university was very high, and other people may read her book or go back and watch this as a resource. Additionally, if someone reads this article and wants to fund something similar – it is a huge win for the university!”

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