Grantee: Emily Falk

Emily Falk

Emily Falk, PhD

Neuroscientist and Psychologist, focused on Health Behavior and Communication
  • University of Pennsylvania

Emily Falk, Ph.D., uses tools from communication, psychology, neuroscience, and computational social science to influence health behavior change. She has found that brain activity in response to persuasive messages can predict who will change their behavior and what types of messages are likely to be most effective.

Critically, the brain provides a window into the why and how of behavior change that isn't always apparent from what people are able to report when asked what they think will motivate them to change or whether a message is likely to be effective for them. For example, Dr. Falk has developed methods to predict behavior change from the brain's response to persuasive messages and for understanding what makes successful ideas spread (e.g. through social networks, through cultures). She has also developed methods to predict the efficacy of persuasive communication at the population level.

Dr. Falk's work focuses on behaviors that matter the most for cancer control, including smoking reduction, physical activity and sedentary behavior, and alcohol use. Behavior change in these domains is particularly critical to cancer prevention. Her research shows that brain activity in regions that assess value in response to persuasive messages can predict behavior change, above and beyond what can be predicted based on other measures such as self-reported surveys.

Her team has also found that brain activity can forecast what health news gets shared at large scales (i.e., virality), which is also key to cancer control. Her research has opened new ways of developing scalable and efficient interventions that can change behavior -- and has highlighted the key ingredients of powerful behavior change strategies -- such as self-affirmation. Dr. Falk's research brings together controlled measurement of brain responses in the lab with real-world assessments of behavior by using tools such as geolocation tracking, mobile experience sampling, and social network analysis.

Dr. Falk is an Associate Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania. Before her doctoral work, Dr. Falk studied health communication and health policy in Canada as a Fulbright Fellow.

People's brains sometimes know them better than they know themselves. Looking into the brain can help us understand what makes people change their behaviors. Likewise, linking neuroscience studies with field methods is critical to understanding how the brain works in the real world, outside of the lab.”

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