2016 #OWHIC Summit Preview: Weight Watchers' Gary Foster on the Psychology of Behavior Change


It's not enough for people to know what behavior they need to change or why. They need the problem-solving skills to tackle the how.

Gary Foster, PhD

7 min read

Weight Watchers International holds more than 40,000 meetings each week where members receive support and learn about healthy eating patterns and physical activity to manage their weight. It’s also a leading provider of digital weight management tools. Gary Foster, PhD, Weight Watchers’ Chief Scientific Officer, is a featured speaker at the upcoming Oliver Wyman Health Innovation Summit. He will join a Main Stage discussion on how to convert a fundamental understanding of human behavior into high-impact relationships and sustained value. A preview:

Oliver Wyman Health: Behavior change is often referred to as the holy grail of healthcare. As an expert in the psychology of behavior change, what do you think yields an effective behavior change program?

Gary Foster: Behavioral change goes beyond the individual. While it is essential to understand your consumer, employee, or patient, and their beliefs and preferences, it is also important to understand the broader context of community, workplace, and environment. A holistic view of qualititave insights and solid behavioral science is the bedrock of effective behavior change.

It is also important to think beyond the specific goal to about how it will be reached. For example, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans rely on sound scientific research to tell us what foods would be most beneficial for overall health. The guidelines answer the what and the why, but they fall short on the how. Knowledge alone does not change behavior. The key is to instill belief that the end goal is achieveable by taking specific steps to make changes that fit your life and can be maintained over time.

Weight Watchers recently launched the Beyond the Scale program, a more holistic appraoach to healthier living. This program helps solve for the how by guiding members toward an overall healthier pattern of eating, finding ways to move more each day, and developing the skills to think differently about themselves and the journey to a healthier lifestyle. While members lose weight, they also gain skills for getting — and staying — healthier.

OWH: One of the main differentiators of Weight Watchers is the idea of social connection through group meetings.  Why is this so important?

GF: Meetings have been an integral piece of the Weight Watchers program since its founding in 1963. They not only provide a forum where Weight Watchers leaders and members can share behavioral tips and tools, but they also allow for personal connections and group support, helping to inspire, motivate, and guide members along their path toward healthier living.

Access to support in so many forms—anytime, anywhere, whether via coaching, social networking, or face-to-face gatherings—helps to facilitate behavior change.

More recently we have translated the “meeting magic” of human connection to our digital products via one-on-one coaching, a 24/7 Expert Chat feature, and Connect, a social networking tool available only to members through the Weight Watchers app. Connect has become a very popular tool—a safe space to acknowledge accomplishments, get advice, and share both victories and struggles.

This access to support in so many forms—anytime, anywhere, whether via coaching, social networking, or face-to-face gatherings—helps to facilitate behavior change by providing members with the channels to stay motivated, accountable, and continually encouraged alongside like-minded peers.

OWH: The Weight Watchers program has evolved over the years. What changes in consumer behavior led to the evolution?

GF: There has been a shift in how people think about weight loss. We are always listening to our members and tapping consumer insights to adapt and refine the program. For instance, today's consumers don’t want dieting and restriction; they want a more holistic and personalized solution, integrating healthier eating, fitness, and emotional well-being.

We’re meeting members where they are today, and we’ve put more of a focus on working with our members from the inside out. Behavioral science has shown that people who find ways to take care of themselves and put themselves first on a regular basis had a better chance to succeed in achieving a healthier lifestyle. Happier people will make healthier choices.

OWH: What other lessons can Weight Watchers bring to the broader health market?

GF: First, it is important to align scientific research and evidence-proven approaches with the consumer mindset to ensure that what we offer is not only effective but also appealing to the consumer, employee, or patient.

It is also important to realize behavior change programs are more than helping people decide what behavior they need to change and why; we need to help them identify how to change by giving them the problem-solving skills to overcome the inevitable barriers they’ll face. Skill power, not will power, is the key to successful behavior change.  

Lastly, we emphasize making small changes that have a large impact over time. Making small changes gives patients successful experiences to build from rather than attempting drastic changes that are typically short-lived.

  • Gary Foster, PhD