Identity Processes in Behavioral Change


In my newest line of research I investigate together with my colleagues, and my colleague Eline Meijer and PhD student Kristell Penfornis, in particular, the identity processes that accompany health behavioral change. Main premises of the theoretical framework we apply is that over time a behavior, such as smoking, is likely become integrated in the identity of a person. In our line of research, we argue that when this happens, behavior becomes robust to change because it is so closely linked to central self-views. We contend, based on for example Prime Theory (West, 2006) that behavioral change can only then occur if the new (healthier) behavior becomes part of the “self”: the person one perceives oneself to be, or wishes to be. Such views of the self need to be vivid  and readily accessible, particularly at times when one is faced with difficulties that interfere with establishing a new behavioral pattern.

We examine behavioral change as it occurs over time and search for self-defining moments during the process. This is done by interviewing smokers, but also by using data from a large panel-study (International Tobacco Control Project), in which thousands of smokers are followed over the years (in the Netherlands since 2008). We also experimentally induce new identities, and try to encourage people to link a behavioral goal, such as continuing or quitting smoking, to (un)desired future self-views, or so-called Possible Selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986). This is also a main aim of the NWO funded project of the Perfect Fit consortium and in Transfer project.


Perfect Fit: Targeting key risk factors for cardiovascular disease in at-risk individuals using a personalized and adaptive approach. (NWO, PI Niels Chavannes)


Obtain the fulltext of most of my publications at Researchgate.

Meijer, E., Vangeli, E., Gebhardt, W.A. & van Laar, C. (2020). Identity processes in smokers who want to quit smoking: A longitudinal Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, 24(5), 493-517.

Meijer, E., Gebhardt, W.A., van Laar, C., van den Putte, B. & Evers, A.W.M. (2018). Strengthening quitter self-identity: An experimental study. Psychology and Health, 1-22, 33(10), 1229-1250.

Meijer, E., Van den Putte, B., Gebhardt, W. A., Van Laar, C., Bakk, Z., Dijkstra, A., Fong, G. T., West, R. & Willemsen, M. C. (2018). A longitudinal study into the reciprocal effects of identities and smoking behaviour: Findings from the ITC Netherlands Survey. Social Science and Medicine, 200, 249-257.

Meijer, E., van Laar, C., Gebhardt, W.A., Fokkema, M., van den Putte, S.J.H.M., Dijkstra, A., Fong, G., Willemsen, M. (2017). Identity change among smokers and ex-smokers: Findings from the ITC Netherlands Survey. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 31(4), 465-478. 

Gebhardt, W.A. (2017). Multiple goal perspective and social identification processes. Addiction, 112(3), 396-398. 

Meijer, E., Gebhardt, W.A., Van Laar, C., Kawous, R. & Beijk, S.C. A.M. (2016). Socio-economic status in relation to smoking: The role of (expected and desired) social support and quitter identity. Social Science and Medicine, 162, 41-49.

Meijer, E., Gebhardt, W. A., Dijkstra, A., Willemsen, M. C., & Van Laar, C. (2015). Quitting smoking: The importance of non-smoker identity in predicting smoking behaviour and responses to a smoking ban. Psychology & Health30(12), 1387-1409.

Kenter, E.J., Gebhardt, W.A., Lottman, I., van Rossum, M., Bekedam, M. & Crone, M.R. (2015). The influence of life events on physical activity patterns of Dutch older adults: A life history method. Psychology & Health, 30, 627-651.

Van der Heiden, S., Gebhardt, W.A., Willemsen, M.C., Nagelhout, G.E., & Dijkstra, A. (2013). Behavioral and psychological responses of lower educated smokers to the smoke-free legislation in Dutch hospitality venues: A qualitative study. Psychology & Health, 28, 49-66.

Nagelhout, G. E., Willemsen, M. C., Gebhardt, W. A., Van den Putte, B., Hitchman, S. C., Crone, M. R., Fong, G. T., Van der Heiden, S., & De Vries, H. (2012). Does smoke-free legislation and smoking outside bars increase feelings of stigmatization among smokers? Findings from the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Netherlands Survey. Health & Place, 18, 1436-1440.

Meijer, E., Gebhardt, W.A., van Laar, C., Willemsen, M. & Dijkstra, A. (2013). Het belang van zelfidentiteit en groepsidentiteit als voorspellers van kernreacties op het horecarookverbod. ASPO jaarboek 2013, pp. 137-139.