Making Big Changes Worldwide

When people ask us to name the University’s foremost researchers, Jim Prochaska’s name is always at the top of our short list.

When James Prochaska was a young boy he felt a sense of helplessness. His dad was bi-polar, and there were problems with alcohol and violence at home. He wished he could change things.

He grew up, became a professor of clinical and health psychology, and converted that youthful turmoil into a quest that has helped thousands of people around the world change their unhealthy behaviors.

Jim did it by developing a revolutionary model of behavior change. The model has been applied to more than 50 behaviors and has been cited thousands of times in published studies in more than 20 languages, making it the most cited model in health behavior change. In short, the director of the University’s Cancer Prevention Research Center has changed the way professionals view change.

“When the history of modern-day psychology is written, Jim Prochaska’s name will be at the top of the list of those who shaped how we think about change itself, especially how we change the unhealthy behaviors of large populations,” says President Robert L. Carothers. “We are profoundly proud that he is one of ours.”

Other higher education institutions, especially Ivy League schools, have tried to recruit him, attempting to lure him away from URI with generous offers. He refuses them all.

“I’ve always believed in public education,” he says. “Both Jan and I were the first in our families to go to college. Our fathers worked in factories.”

Jim met his future wife in the band room of Fordson High School in Dearborn, Mich. He was a football player; Jan was a majorette. She studied social work in college while he studied psychology.

Before Jim joined the URI faculty in 1969, the couple visited the Kingston Campus. “Just like with Jan, it was love at first sight,” Jim says. “The University is small enough to be appreciated and big enough to have wonderful collaborators. And the University has always encouraged entrepreneurship.”

Today, Jan is president and CEO of Pro-Change Behavior Systems, Inc., an 11-year-old privately held research and product development company that expands Jim’s change model by developing and delivering innovative programs for dissemination partners. The Prochaskas have two children; one is an astrophysicist and the other a clinical health psychologist.

How was the model created?

Prochaska and his colleagues identified and integrated about 200 behavior systems of psychotherapy on how people changed. They then placed ads in the local newspapers seeking volunteers for their research project.

One thousand Rhode Islanders responded to the ads. The team followed them for two years. “They gave us the blueprint, teaching us what worked and what didn’t. Rhode Islanders taught us about the stages of change. I believe in the wisdom of ordinary people,” Prochaska says.

The researchers understood that change is not an event, but a process.

The Transtheoretical Model has five stages: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. It targets each person’s stage and then guides him or her through the remaining stages of change. It is not just for the small majority prepared to take action, but for people at all stages of change. It’s personalized, not a one-size-fits all approach, and consequently more effective.

The development of the model and its expanding number of applications are backed by 30 years of research, more than $70 million in funded grants, and more than 120,000 participants.

Why Change?

Why is change so important? Consider this: The major causes of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease result from behaviors like smoking, sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy diets, substance abuse, and stress. In fact, diseases resulting from these behaviors account for more than 60 percent of health care costs. Change saves more than money; it saves lives.

Model’s Applications

The model has been applied to the following behaviors: Smoking, alcohol and substance abuse, sun exposure, coping/stress, exercise, and weight control. Pro-Change, which Janice Prochaska heads, has developed numerous programs including domestic violence prevention, stress management, weight management, medication adherence, becoming a proactive health consumer, readiness for adoption, bullying prevention, obesity prevention, and organizational change. The company employs 20 staff members of which seven are doctoral level psychologists and two are doctoral candidates. All but one of the Ph.Ds are URI graduates.

When asked if the couple’s recent gift (see box) meant he planned to retire, Jim responded with a smile: “I’m in the precontemplation stage.” Precontemplation is the stage in which people are not intending to take action in the foreseeable future. “That doesn’t mean I’m not ready to turn over leadership of the CPRC to a younger person,” he added.

Challenge to Maintain Excellence

This year Jim and Janice Prochaska pledged $250,000 to URI’s Making A Difference campaign to establish the Prochaska Cancer Prevention Research Center Leadership Endowment to ensure that the CPRC maintains its stellar programming under strong leadership.

The gift is a challenge grant, which means the couple will match other donations to the endowment dollar-for-dollar. The endowment’s primary purpose is to help the University attract a nationally recognized director for the center when Jim eventually steps down and to provide support for graduate students who study and work in the center. Many of those former students have made major contributions to health promotion.

Robert Beagle, vice president for university advancement, worked with the Prochaskas on their endowment. “Jim and Jan’s gift demonstrates their commitment to continued success of the Cancer Prevention Research Center. I suspect the couple’s challenge grant will motivate their many colleagues, friends, and associates to give to the endowment. Private support for renowned areas like our behavior change programming is essential.”

Anyone wishing to respond to the Prochaska challenge should contact Tom Zorabedian, associate dean, College of Arts and Sciences, at 401-874-2853 or For more information on the campaign, click

By Jan Wenzel ’87

Photo By Nora Lewis