Moving from mainstream health psychology towards critical health psychology: Reflections of an early career researcher

By David Healy

Photo by Zen Chung on Pexels

I am a final year PhD student at the University of Galway, Ireland, conducting research in psychology and digital health. In this blog, I want to share some reflections about my experience conducting research in an academic environment that foregrounds traditional research perspectives in health psychology and the different challenges I have faced on account of this.  

My project is exploring if retired and non-working adults would be interested in using immersive virtual reality to reduce their time spent sedentary. I am following the person-based approach to digital health intervention development to generate and optimise health behaviour change content for retired and non-working adults. The overarching aim of my project is to understand if retired and non-working adults can ascribe meaning to socially connected virtual non-sedentary activities, as meaning making appears to be one of the key determinants of reduced sedentary activity in older populations.

My academic journey to the present day

I have been in higher education for almost 8 years now, exploring the various evolving disciplines and perspectives in psychology and health. Throughout these 8 years, I find myself repeatedly returning to an age-old paradox most often attributed to Albert Einstein, “the more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know”.

This paradox offers a backdrop to my own current predicament, where I have learned that conducting research in psychology is not quite as simple as following the proposed rules and assumptions (theories, frameworks, etc.), and interpreting data as you would moves on a chessboard. I have learned that human beings are far more complicated than rooks and bishops and interact with the world in far more unpredictable and creative ways than these inanimate objects do with their unchanging checkered spaces. I am aware, of course, that health psychologists do not explicitly liken people to chess pieces, or the world they interact with to a chessboard, but through my recent reflections on the methodologies applied in disciplines such as this I have come to realise that at least implicitly, we do.

I will provide just a short description of where this conflict arises for me in my work. To develop intervention content, I decided to follow Michie and colleagues’ behaviour change wheel guide to intervention development as it was one of the primary approaches to behaviour change intervention development taught on my master’s programme.

I found the process very useful in some ways. It enabled me to identify determinants of a target behaviour and behaviour change techniques to support the behaviour change process, which could be summarised in logical, organised tables. Although this part of the process appeared to generate a logical output, I felt a disconnect between this conceptualisation of the behaviour and participants’ perspectives.  This disconnect echoes what Jane Ogden has, to an extent, already shared in her paper “Celebrating variability and a call to limit systematisation…”, calling for greater acknowledgement of variability in human behaviour and therefore moving away from its systemisation. I found that this systematisation limited how I engaged with the way the individuals in my study cohort thought about sedentary behaviour and digital technology.

In search of different perspectives

My introduction to critical perspectives in psychology was not a direct one; it first happened accidentally after stumbling upon the recording of an event that took place a number of years before the discipline was even created. It was a debate between two radically different intellectuals, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, who discussed their conceptualisations of reality and how they relate to their understanding of the world; culminating in a final discussion about how these conceptualisations relate to their understanding of power and justice. Through their discussion, I was (re)introduced to the world of meta-theory. Although I had learned about ontological and epistemological assumptions as an undergraduate student, it was only after watching this discussion that I really understood how central they are to understanding the kind of knowledge you are generating and what you can and cannot conclude from that knowledge. This was a “glass walls shattering” moment for me.

Due to its focus on detailing the meta-theoretical underpinnings of research conducted in this discipline, I began to look more at the perspectives conveyed in critical health psychology related to my own research topic. Critical theorists such as Deborah Lupton offered some insightful alternative perspectives on peoples’ and society’s relationship with digital health technologies – exploring the power dynamics at play with the surveillance of health data through biosensors, for example, where people are nudged in different directions to behave a certain way. A perspective such as this looks beyond the individual’s responsibility to remain healthy and strives to understand how there are, in fact, other oppressive systemic issues at play that also determine people’s health decisions and outcomes, rather than just individual cognitions. I have begun to integrate these perspectives into my own work – thinking critically about the implications of introducing a technology such as immersive virtual reality into retired and non-working adults’ lives rather than simply looking at how an individual engages with the technology and what would encourage them to engage with it more.

Final reflections

I am still just learning about critical health psychology – analytic methods used such as discursive analysis, and its broader scepticism towards how science and society as a whole are defined and enforced. I am navigating this body of work with a number of researchers in my department who are also beginning to explore critical health psychology, and we come together each month to discuss critically orientated research that is relevant to our work. Admittedly, I struggle with the conceptualisations of such methods and scepticisms voiced in critical disciplines and have a long way to go before understanding where I think I fit in as researcher. This struggle is nicely summarised through the conflict Chomsky and Foucault have in their conceptualisations of reality and knowledge. To paraphrase the words of the moderator of that discussion – both Chomsky and Foucault are climbing the same mountain towards the same peak, but from different sides. I find myself climbing both sides of that mountain on a given day when thinking about which direction I want to go with my own research. Teasing out this conflict with other researchers is where my own interests currently lie.


Lupton, D. (2013). Quantifying the body: Monitoring and measuring health in the age of mHealth technologies. Critical Public Health, 23(4), 393–403.

Michie, S., Atkins, L., & West, R. (2014). The behaviour change wheel: A guide to designing interventions (Vol. 26).

Michie, S., Richardson, M., Johnston, M., Abraham, C., Francis, J., Hardeman, W., Eccles, M. P., Cane, J., & Wood, C. E. (2013). The Behavior Change Technique Taxonomy (v1) of 93 Hierarchically Clustered Techniques: Building an International Consensus for the Reporting of Behavior Change Interventions. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 46(1), 81–95.

Ogden J. (2016). Celebrating variability and a call to limit systematisation: the example of the Behaviour Change Technique Taxonomy and the Behaviour Change Wheel. Health Psychology Review, 10(3), 245-50.

About the author

David is a PhD researcher based in the School of Psychology at the University of Galway, Ireland. As part of his PhD project, he is developing an immersive virtual reality behaviour change intervention to support retired and non-working adults to reduce their time spent sedentary; with a focus on understanding if and how immersive virtual reality would/should be adopted in this context. David’s other research interests include co-production, responsible AI in healthcare, and philosophy of science.

He can be reached via email at or on Twitter @David_Healy95.

One thought on “Moving from mainstream health psychology towards critical health psychology: Reflections of an early career researcher

  1. Chris Noone March 16, 2023 / 1:30 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience in a very nicely written piece David! I’m glad that ISCHP seems very welcoming to researchers like you and I who have grown skeptical of mainstream psychology but haven’t had enough training or other means of exposure to alternative ways of doing psychology research.

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