How to Change Behavior: A Theoretical Overview
May 16, 2015
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Baby Steps - How to Change BehaviorPhoto Credit: Juhan Sonin

There are a variety of theories about how to make behavioral changes – either starting something new or eliminating something old. This post reviews some key models for changing behavior, including more established theories, like Classical and Operant Conditioning, and the Transtheoretical Model for Change.  In addition, you will also find more recent thinking on the subject, including Stanford Professor BJ Fogg’s interesting behavioral change program known as “Tiny Habits.”

Human behavior is complicated and every person is unique, so the key to change is to experiment with different tactics and identify what works for YOU.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, so don’t assume you’re a failure because one method is unsuccessful.  Instead, try another approach until you find one that matches your style and strengths 

Classical and Operant Conditioning

Let’s start with the established theories of classical and operant conditioning — concepts that everybody has heard about, but may not fully understand.

Classical Conditioning involves conditioning a reflexive behavior by pairing a neutral stimulus with a naturally occurring one.  After a certain amount of time, the neutral stimulus alone is sufficient for triggering the reflex.

Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov’s experimentation with dogs is the most famous example of this type of conditioning.  In his experiments, a sound (=neutral stimulus) would be made whenever food was brought to the dogs.  When the dogs saw the food (=natural stimulus), they began to salivate (=reflex/naturally occurring behavior).  Eventually, the dogs would salivate upon hearing the sound alone.

You can apply this theory to yourself by finding positive pairings that enhance behavioral change, or by removing negative associations that reinforce bad habits.

For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking and in the past you did a lot of smoking at bars, then you may want to avoid bars for a while, as this will probably trigger the desire to light up.  This is an example of removing a potential stimulus: the association between bars and smoking.

Another example of using classical conditioning applies to phobias.  For example, say you have a fear of flying.  You can learn to associate a feeling of relaxation or ease (rather than fear), with the experience of getting on an airplane.  This would be done through a process known as systematic desensitization.  It does take effort and time to change many phobias, and typically, the assistance of a professional is needed when contending with severe ones.

Operant Conditioning is another type of learning process that uses reinforcement or punishment to shape desired behavior.  If the targeted behavior occurs, a reward is introduced (=positive reinforcement) or something undesirable is taken away (=negative reinforcement).  If the targeted behavior does not occur, a consequence can be introduced in the form of a “positive punishment” (=a negative stimulus) or “negative punishment” (=the removal of something desirable).  One big difference here compared to classical conditioning is that operant conditioning focuses on voluntary, rather than reflexive, behavior.

So, if you’re trying to make a change, make sure you reward yourself after doing something positive. Sounds simple, but it is a powerful means of reinforcing something good.

I’m not a big fan of “punishment” per se, but having consequences for one’s actions (or lack thereof) can often prove helpful.  When making changes, “relapse” (reverting to old habits) is likely to happen at some point. The key here is to anticipate and learn from the relapse, rather than dwell on it.

You can also turn a “relapse” into a positive.  Let’s take the analogy of the “carbon offset” programs, whereby one offsets their carbon emissions by reducing them elsewhere. For example, say you’re trying to quit smoking and you’re successful for 1 week, then you slip and have a cigarette.  Instead of beating yourself up about this, acknowledge the disappointment and “offset” the hit to your lungs, by doing something beneficial to your overall health.  You could make yourself eat healthier that day or take a 10-minute walk.  Doing these alternative activities aren’t designed to enable the behavior you’re trying to change, but are there to help you keep you moving forward.  A sense of momentum can do wonders with regards to motivation.

Tiny Habits

BJ Fogg, PhD., an expert in the psychology of persuasion and founder of the Persuasive Lab at Stanford University, has developed a fascinating program for behavioral change, referred to as “3 Tiny Habits.”

His research on human behavior concluded that only 3 things change behavior in the long term:

“Option AHave an epiphany

Option BChange your context (what surrounds you)

Option CTake baby steps”

He emphasizes options B + C, since they are more practical than having “an epiphany.”  Option C – taking baby steps – involves starting a “tiny habit,” which he defines as something that takes no more than 30 seconds per day.  He likes to give the example of flossing just one tooth per day as the first step in establishing a habit of flossing one’s teeth.  Over time, this will lead to adding a second, a third, etc., until you’re brushing all those pearly whites!

Dr. Fogg’s program essentially combines several principles from classical and operant conditioning.  What makes his model different, however, is his strong emphasis on small changes.

To make lasting changes, Dr. Fogg recommends the following:

1.) Pick specific, rather than abstract goals. For example, instead of a goal like “get into better shape,” identify something more specific like “exercise 2x/week, by going to the gym 1x and yoga class 1x” or “walk for 10 minutes/day 2x/wk.”

2.) Start small. If your ultimate goal is to exercise daily, break that into smaller chunks in the beginning, like exercising once a week, and then build on that success.

3.) Build the change into your routine.  Make the new behavior more natural by building it into your routine of existing habits.  For example, say your morning routine is to wake up, drink coffee, and read the news online for 30 minutes.  If your goal is to increase your exercise, you can then change your routine to the following sequence: wake up, drink coffee, read news for 15 minutes and exercise for 15 minutes.  You still use the same amount of time in your morning routine, but you now have integrated a new habit. Dr. Fogg notes that if you have to make a conscious decision to engage in the activity, then it’s harder to follow through.  A “habit” is more automatic.

4.) Reward yourself.  After you’ve made any change, large or small, reinforce the behavior by giving yourself a reward. The reward can be something simple, like having a bite of your favorite chocolate, or more elaborate like getting a massage.

According to his research, a confluence of three factors is needed for change to occur: a trigger, some motivation and the ability to make the change.  Let’s explore these terms more:

Triggers: the trigger refers to some type of prompt or reminder to take action.  A trigger may be seeing a phrase that you’ve posted by your desk that reminds you of your goal.  Seeing this sparks you to take some action in that direction.

Some of the best triggers are existing habits. For example, brushing your teeth before going to sleep is a habit for most and can serve as a trigger (i.e., prompt) to then floss your teeth.

Much of Dr. Fogg’s research relates to the use of persuasion in technology.  An example he gives of a trigger is when Facebook sends you an email letting you know that you’ve been tagged in a picture.  This email then triggers you to click that link to the picture.

Motivation: for proper motivation to exist, one must believe that the pros outweigh the cons. Fogg believes in three “core motivators” that impact human behavior.  These relate to Sensation, Anticipation and Social Cohesion. Sensation refers to the degree of pleasure or pain involved; anticipation relates to feelings of hope and fear; and social cohesion encompasses the level of rejection or acceptance by others.

For example, if a substance abuse problem is threatening the health of one’s primary relationship, the fear of losing one’s spouse can provide greater motivation than the amount of “pleasure” gained from using the substance.  If one’s level of hope for achieving a goal is high, then that will be motivating.  Likewise, if making a change leads to greater acceptance among peers, then that will also be motivating.  Alternatively, a fear of rejection can motivate one to avoid behavior that is not considered socially acceptable.

Ability: for change to occur, the target behavior must be achievable.  For example, if you never exercise, it probably wouldn’t make sense to set an initial goal of competing in a marathon.  For most people who never exercise, this would be way beyond their physical ability, even if they had unlimited time to train.  But, a smaller, but challenging goal like competing in a 5K would likely be perceived as more achievable.

To this last point, Dr. Fogg is a big proponent of simplicity and small changes, at least in the beginning.  Resistance is natural if the task requires too much effort initially.  When a sense of momentum and success is achieved, then harder tasks can be accomplished more readily.

A direct relationship exists between motivation and ability.  For example, if a change is fairly easy to make, then the level of motivation doesn’t have to be that high.  Alternatively, if greater ability is required to achieve a goal (e.g., learning a complex skill), then more motivation will be needed.

As noted previously, Dr. Fogg’s model combines methods from both classical and operant conditioning, with a particular emphasis on starting small – very small – and on making goals specific, rather than abstract.  From my perspective, you may want to try his method with goals that you have had a very hard time accomplishing.  Contrary to Dr. Fogg’s opinion, for some, going with broader, abstract goals may work just fine.  As mentioned previously, it all depends on the person, so try different approaches and go from there.

While Dr. Fogg’s model has yet to be rigorously tested, over 30,000 people have experimented with the “3 Tiny Habits” program.  You can join these people by participating in this free program that requires a commitment of about 3 minutes per day engaging in the new habits. For more information, go to the Tiny Habits website.  To read the KQED article on BJ Fogg’s work, click here: Think Tiny: The Science of New Year’s Resolutions.

Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change

The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (TTM) was first developed by University of Rhode Island Professor James O. Prochaska and his colleagues in the late 1970’s.  Since then, it has been studied and applied in a variety of contexts, although it is probably most known for its use in helping people with addiction problems.  At the core of this theory is the belief that people are at different “Stages of Change” and that it’s important to tailor strategies to one’s particular place of readiness.

There are 5 distinct stages in this model known as Pre-contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action and Maintenance.  Below you can find descriptions of these stages, along with areas one should focus on when in that particular phase.

1.)  Pre-contemplation = Not Ready

You see the cons of change more than the pros and may not even be aware of the need for change.

Focus: Exploration

When one is in this stage, awareness needs to be increased.  Take some time to reflect on your behavior in an objective, open way.  Is it healthy?  Unhealthy? How so? What are the benefits of the behavior? What are the drawbacks?  Since people are sometimes unaware of or in denial of something problematic, it’s sometimes others who bring concerns to their attention.  This may be a spouse, family member or co-worker.  If you’re in this latter role, it’s important to be patient and non-judgmental, recognizing that people change when they are ready and when it’s their own choice, versus something that is thrust upon them.  Letting them know you’re an ally, that you’re on their side, is helpful as they navigate their journey toward positive change.

2.)  Contemplation = Getting Ready

You’re seriously considering making a change, but you feel ambivalent about it. The benefits of change seem about equal to not changing at this stage.

Focus: Resolve Ambivalence

Find creative ways to address the drawbacks to change. Focus on the benefits of change, in particular how your life will be different in the long run.

3.)  Preparation = Ready to Change

You’re clear that you want to make a change, but you fear that you may not be up to the task.

Focus: Identify the Means

Prepare for the change you’re about to make by clearly articulating your goal(s) and identifying strategies (i.e., means) you will need to accomplish them. This includes building the support system you will likely need – either via natural supports, like friends and family, or professional networks.  We all need support when it comes to change.

4.)  Action = Productive Activity

You are starting to make the changes you wish to see, but the behavior hasn’t become established yet.

Focus: Implementation

Execute the strategies identified, such as replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones and avoiding triggers to undesirable actions and behaviors. This is a time to stay close to your support system and establish systems for accountability with yourself.

5.)  Maintenance = Keeping on Track

You have made the changes you wish to see and now are working at maintaining this positive growth.

Focus: Relapse Prevention

Be mindful of what’s working for you and continue to put effort into these areas.  Be aware of your potential “vulnerable spots” that can lead to a resurfacing of old, unhealthy habits. For example, people tend to be more psychologically vulnerable when under great stress.  Say you are able to quit smoking for several months and then things all of a sudden get really stressful at work or home. This is a high-risk time when one is naturally tempted to revert to old behaviors as a means of coping with the stress.  Make extra effort to stick with the healthy behaviors and find other ways to manage your stress.

Reflections

Upon reviewing the aforementioned theories related to behavioral change, I wanted to add a few more thoughts that may be helpful.

1.) What we focus on grows

The areas that we put attention on in our lives tend to get “bigger.”  This can either be a good or bad thing, depending on where you choose to focus your energy.  If you put attention on positive things, like having a gratitude practice, then more constructive thoughts and feelings will begin to predominate your experiences.  Alternatively, if you constantly judge yourself in a negative fashion, then that voice of your inner critic will continue to get louder, drowning out a broader life perspective.

Setting intentions are powerful tools for change.  Think about these, write about them and share them with others.  Even if you don’t “do” anything different for a while, as you continue to remind yourself of your intentions, you’re planting the seeds for change.

2.) Change your environment

Similar to BJ Fogg’s recommendation of changing contexts, Peter Bregman, a strategic business consultant and blogger for the Harvard Business Review notes how simple changes in the environment can have significant impacts.  He gives examples of having school children sit in circles, rather than rows, and having employees work in open areas, rather than cubicles, as powerful means of fostering more interaction. These are changes we may take for granted now, but when first implemented, they were rather ingenious.

A change of physical environs can “snap you out” of unconscious, patterned ways of thinking and open up new channels previously unimagined.

3.) Set yourself up for success

It’s important to be aware of your strengths and “weaknesses” when targeting changes you wish to make.  I like using sports analogies, since athletics have been a big part of my life, and something to which many others can relate.  Most people know of the former NBA star, Shaquille O’Neal.  He obviously had tremendous success as a basketball player and nobody would argue that his strengths as a player were his physical size and ability to overpower his opponents.  Now imagine if Shaquille had spent his career trying to hone his outside 3-point shot.  Who knows how this would have gone, but based on his free throw shooting, I’d imagine that he wouldn’t have made it very far.  While he did work on the weaker parts of his game, he built his career around his strengths and needless to say, achieved tremendous success.

Reflect on the things you’ve been most successful at in the past. What strategies did you use in those areas?  Think of the various roles you’ve had: as a parent, student, athlete, artist, etc.?  What were/are your strengths?

For example, if being social is your strong suit, incorporate time with others into your strategies for change. For many, having a buddy to go to the gym with not only increases the likelihood of accomplishing that goal, but also makes it more enjoyable.

Think about engaging in more challenging endeavors (e.g., things you normally would procrastinate a lot about), when you’re feeling fresh and energized.  If the morning is this time for you, then take on more projects during the AM.  If during the evening, you are tired, with limited ability to focus, then don’t try to start developing a new habit under those conditions.

Be honest with yourself and set realistic goals.  Sometimes it’s hard to know what is “realistic,” as people often underestimate or overestimate their abilities.  In this context, “realistic” means a step that you can readily achieve with some effort.  If you have some big goals, that’s great, but you first want to first break them down into manageable parts.  As BJ Fogg noted, starting small – even very small – can be quite helpful.

4.) Are you wallowing?

With human behavior, there’s a tendency to repeat what is familiar.  While the behavior isn’t really in our best interest, engaging in it does provide some sort of comfort because of this familiarity.  This can lead to an experience of “wallowing” or getting stuck in patterns that are no longer useful. Even though the negative behavior may cause some distress, the thought of giving it up and going into the unknown is scary.

If you find yourself continually rehashing the same old narrative about yourself or an aspect of your life, ask yourself if you’re engaging in productive analysis or whether you’re just wallowing?  If it’s the latter, acknowledge that change – that is, newness – is often anxiety provoking. Find ways to work with the underlying fear.  For example, it can be helpful to reflect on past experiences of starting something new, to remind yourself of the many ways you managed the fear associated with change successfully.

5.) Explore pay-offs

It can be helpful to explore the pay-offs you make when engaging in (or avoiding) a particular behavior – be it an external behavior (e.g., smoking cigarettes) or an internal one (e.g., negative self-talk).  Ask yourself: what do I gain from continuing to do this?  What do I lose?  Would I treat a loved one this way?

People often see the downside of negative behaviors, but have a hard time articulating the pay-offs. In any behavior that is repeated over and over again, there’s some pay-off; otherwise, we wouldn’t continue doing them.

Let’s take ‘catastrophic thinking’ as an example.  This type of thinking, referred to as a ‘cognitive distortion’ (from cognitive-behavioral therapy theory), leads to feelings of high anxiety and sometimes, even depression.  It’s often easy to identify the unwanted emotional distress, but more difficult to recognize the “benefits” (i.e., the pay-off) of this thought pattern.

For some, the pay-off of predicting the worst is that it protects them from disappointment. For others, it provides a sense of being prepared for whatever is to come.  Catastrophic thinking is one way of dealing with the discomfort of uncertainty.  Since we never really know what is going to happen until it actually does, this unknown or “gap” can be quite disconcerting for people.  Having something to fill it with, even if it’s more negative, at least provides something to hold onto, which gives a bit of comfort in the moment.

Short-term gratification is a common pay-off to “unwanted” behavior.  Everybody has experienced procrastination, which is a prime example of exchanging a short-term gain for a longer-term loss.  For example, watching TV can provide the short-term gratification associated with doing something pleasurable and relaxing.  But, the trade-off is that the longer-term goal of say, learning a new language or getting into shape, is put on the backburner.

So, next time you are reflecting on behavior you would like to change, ask yourself, what are the pay-offs here?  Greater awareness of these can free up room in your mind to make more positive choices.

6.) Remember, you are a system and part of many larger systems

A system is defined as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” (Merriam-Webster).

As a human being you are one whole, integrated “system” comprised of different entities, such as your mind, body, spirit and its various components.  You are also part of many larger systems that include things like family, your work place, the broader community, etc.

Change is not always linear; making a change in one area (i.e., one part of the system) can lead to unforeseen changes in another.  For example, say your goal is to get into better physical shape.  If you are sleep deprived and you make a commitment to get an extra hour of sleep each night, you may find yourself more rested in the morning, which leads to greater motivation to exercise.

Another example is related to engagement in spiritual endeavors.  While it’s hard to measure the social constructs of religion and spirituality, some research suggests that greater spiritual involvement is associated with more positive health outcomes.  For example, mindfulness meditation has been shown to be helpful with coping with chronic pain.  A meta-analysis study out of Brazil “suggests that spirituality and religion play a considerable role in mortality rate reductions, comparable to fruit and vegetable consumption and statin therapy.”  Another study by Wellesley College and University of New Hampshire researchers showed that religion can serve as a buffer against depression.

If you’re really struggling with changing one behavior, pick another area that’s less entrenched and start there. You may be surprised by how seemingly unrelated changes in one area of life can impact others in a non-linear way.

In Conclusion

In summary, when attempting to change behavior, keep the following in mind: the value of small steps; the importance of experimenting with different tactics; the need to practice, practice, practice; to keep your focus on the positive and remember that making any amount of progress, no matter how small, is significant!  And lastly, don’t beat yourself up if things don’t go as planned. Any effort in the direction of positive change is well-used energy, regardless of the “outcome.”

About this Contributor: Kim is a passionate advocate of personal growth and healing.  She has been a licensed clinical social worker for the past 10 years, and in private practice as a therapist to adults of all ages since 2007.  Prior to her clinical career, she worked in the information technology sector in the SF Bay Area.  She is a proud spouse of 14 years; co-parent to two beautiful non-human beings; a longtime practitioner of mindfulness meditation; and an aging jock. Her formal education was received at UC Berkeley (Masters in Social Work) and the University of Michigan (B.A. in Anthropology), where she also played varsity tennis (Go Blue!). To learn more about Kim’s therapy practice, please visit: www.kimpratt.com.


  1. I’ve found that behavior change can vary from easy to difficult. One persistent behavior I’m trying to change is my hair pulling habit, which I’ve had since childhood. (Check out the very helpful site, trich.org to learn about trichotillomania and other body-focused repetitive behaviors like skin-picking.) The behavior of pulling hair (or just “pulling,” for short) gives me no apparent benefit, yet I continue to engage in the behavior, on and off. (Luckily for me, the consequences of hair-pulling have not been severe so far.) My goal is to not pull any hairs through the end of the month: this is more attainable than trying to quit altogether. My theory is that by reaching small goals, the rewarding feeling of reaching the goal will bolster my confidence in meeting subsequent goals. Of course, I may very well have to swallow my pride and get expert help if I can’t successfully treat it myself. Are there others out there who would care to share a little about behavior change? What works, what doesn’t, what was easy or hard?

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