An individual’s personality traits may provide helpful clues for determining whether a particular behavioral change intervention will be successful, according to a study funded by the University of Pennsylvania Health System and published in PLOS ONE.

The study, designed as a randomized clinical trial, divided 602 participants with overweight/obesity into either the control group or one of three different gamification intervention groups: 1. Supportive, 2. Collaborative, and 3. Competitive. Each intervention consisted of a 24-week intervention period and a 12-week follow up period. The primary measurement outcome was the change of daily steps from baseline to the end of the intervention period.

Based on their responses to a survey at the outset of the study, the participants were categorized into one of three personality classes: Class 1 – Extroverted and Motivated; Class 2 – Less Active and Less Social; and Class 3 – Less Active and At-Risk.

people in motion going through a doorway
The study found that the “less active, less social” phenotype may be ideal for sustainable behavior change through gamification – Photo by Jimmy Chan on

Some notable results:

Class 1 performed well in the competitive intervention group, however their gains evaporated by the end of the follow-up period.

Class 2 achieved meaningful step increases in all three gamification interventions and sustained success through the 12-week follow up period.

Class 3 participants did not achieve any significant benefit from any of the gamification interventions.

“These findings demonstrated that a behavioral phenotyping approach can reveal differences in intervention response and identify those who are most likely to benefit,” concluded the study authors.  

Why It Matters

Given the extraordinarily high rates of preventable chronic disease in the United States and around the world, identifying successful behavior change interventions is an urgent public health imperative. This study suggests that we must not expect to find a one-size-fits-all, scalable solution, but that we must continue to account for individual variability and venture to provide highly-targeted and customized solutions. To that aim, we must continue to pursue similar research that will help match individuals with interventions that are most likely to produce positive results.