A quick guide to the psychology of behaviour change
Behaviour change is a complex aspect of human psychology. Whether it’s quitting smoking, adopting a healthier diet, or breaking a procrastination habit, understanding the underlying psychological principles can be the key to success. In this blog post, we provide a quick guide to the psychology of behaviour change including effective strategies for transforming your habits.
In this post:
- Why is behaviour change so difficult? What gets in the way?
- The stages of behaviour change
- How do habits form?
- How our habits influence our ability to make change
- How to break the habit?
- The role of motivation in changing behaviour
- The power of reinforcement. Understanding Behavioural Conditioning
- 6 essential strategies for successful behaviour change
- In conclusion
Why is behaviour change so difficult? What gets in the way?
Let’s start by exploring why behaviour change is so difficult. Think about your own experiences. Maybe you have tried to modify your diet, start a new exercise regime, or some other change. In most cases our best intentions quickly fade and we revert to the old way of doing things.
These are the reasons why behaviour change is so challenging to achieve.
Our behaviour is largely driven by habits
Most of our behaviour is based on routine – we find a way of doing things that works for us and we then quickly tend to repeat it. Just imagine having to decide which way to clean your teeth every single morning!
These behaviours become ingrained as habits, which are automatic responses triggered by specific cues or situations.
Breaking these habits requires disrupting established neural pathways and forming new ones, which can be demanding and time-consuming.
Cognitive dissonance arises when individuals experience discomfort due to conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or behaviours.
Attempting to change behaviour can lead to cognitive dissonance as individuals grapple with the discrepancy between their current actions and their desired change.
For example, cutting down on sugar is a great goal, but it is quite difficult to do when you are experiencing that Monday afternoon energy dip.
Comfort zones and fear of the unknown
Change often takes individuals out of their comfort zones, exposing them to uncertainty and unfamiliarity.
The fear of the unknown can be a significant inhibitor, causing people to resist change even if it’s beneficial.
Lack of immediate rewards
Sustained behaviour change requires lots of effort and perseverance, but the rewards may not be immediately apparent.
The absence of immediate positive outcomes can lead to discouragement and a preference for instant gratification.
Social and cultural influences
Social norms and cultural expectations can hinder behaviour change.
Individuals might fear being perceived as different or face pressure to conform to existing patterns, making it challenging to adopt new behaviours.
Self-control is a finite resource that can be depleted over time, especially when facing stress or decision fatigue.
This depletion of self-control can weaken the resolve to make behaviour changes.
Resistance to change can stem from psychological factors like fear of failure, low self-esteem, or a fixed mindset that believes change is not possible.
These psychological barriers can make it difficult for individuals to even consider behaviour change.
Underestimating effort and time
People often underestimate the effort, time, and resources required for behaviour change.
Unrealistic expectations can lead to frustration and a sense of failure, causing individuals to abandon their change efforts prematurely.
Lack of awareness
Effective behaviour change requires an awareness of the need for change. Without this awareness and intrinsic motivation, individuals might not see the value in altering their behaviours.
Influence of past failures
Previous attempts at behaviour change that ended in failure can create a sense of learned helplessness. Individuals may believe that their efforts are futile and be hesitant to try again
The stages of behaviour change
Prochaska and DiClemente’s Transtheoretical Model (TTM) outlines the stages individuals go through when attempting to change their behaviour. These stages are crucial to understanding the psychology of behaviour change.
At this stage, individuals are not yet aware of the need for change or are in denial about it. They may not recognise the consequences of their behaviour.
In this phase, people begin to acknowledge the need for change but may still be ambivalent about it. They weigh the pros and cons of changing.
At this point, individuals are committed to change and often start taking small steps toward it, such as researching solutions or setting goals.
The action stage involves making specific, measurable changes in behaviour. People actively modify their habits, and external support can be crucial at this stage.
After successfully implementing the changes, individuals work to prevent relapse and consolidate their new behaviour into a long-term habit.
In some cases, the behaviour change process reaches a point where there is no longer a risk of relapse, and the new habit is firmly established.
Understanding these stages can help individuals tailor their approach to behaviour change, as strategies that work in one stage may not be effective in another.
How do habits form?
As we have outlined above, habits play a pivotal role in the process of behaviour change. Habits are deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour that are performed automatically in response to specific cues or triggers.
Understanding how habits function and influence behaviour is crucial for individuals seeking to make sustainable changes in their behaviours.
Habits are formed through a process known as habit formation or habit loop. This loop consists of three main components.
The Cue (Trigger)
This is the stimulus that prompts the habit. It can be a specific time, location, emotion, or even an action that precedes the habit.
The routine is the behaviour or action itself. It’s the habitual action that is performed in response to the cue.
The reward is the positive outcome or satisfaction that follows the routine. It reinforces the connection between the cue and the routine.
Here’s an example that will be familiar to many managers:
One of your team comes to you and asks you how to do something (the cue). Being a manager you do one of two things (the routine) – you either tell them how to perform the task, or you choose to do it yourself (as it will be quicker). The reward is that the task gets done. So the next time one of your team asks you how to do something you will go through the same routine.
The downside with this routine is that the manager in this example will quickly become very busy issuing task instructions of even taking on tasks themself. The answer for many managers is to delegate, but this requires a change to the routine.
How our habits influence our ability to make change
Habits can either hinder or facilitate behaviour change, depending on whether they align with the desired change. Here’s how habits influence behaviour change:
Unwanted habits that contribute to negative behaviours can be major barriers to behaviour change. These habits have strong neural pathways and are often triggered by cues that are difficult to avoid. Breaking these habits requires reprogramming the habit loop by identifying alternative routines that provide similar rewards.
Positive Habits and Facilitators
Positive habits that align with desired behaviours can be powerful facilitators of behaviour change. By harnessing existing positive habits and integrating them into new routines, individuals can build on these patterns to make the desired changes more automatic.
How to break the habit?
Identify your triggers
Recognise the cues that trigger your current habits. Understanding the cues that lead to unwanted behaviours allows you to intervene at the right moment to initiate a new routine.
Replace the routine
Once you’ve identified the cues, replace the routine with a new behaviour that aligns with your desired change. This is key to shifting the habit loop.
Create a Reward
Design rewards for your new routines that provide a similar sense of satisfaction as the old habit did. This helps reinforce the new behaviour.
Repetition is essential for habit formation. Consistently performing the new behaviour in response to the cue strengthens the new habit over time.
Begin with small changes that are manageable and sustainable. As these changes become habits, you can gradually increase the complexity or scope of the behaviour change.
Feedback from others is an extremely powerful way to gain a better understanding of how others view you. It can be daunting, but it will greatly enhance your self-awareness.
Practice mindful awareness
Developing awareness of your habits and their triggers is crucial for behaviour change. Mindfulness helps you pause before reacting and gives you the opportunity to choose a new response.
Habits take time to form. Be patient with yourself as you work on replacing old routines with new, positive habits.
The role of motivation in changing behaviour
Motivation is a driving force behind behaviour change. Self-Determination Theory (SDT), developed by Deci and Ryan, posits that intrinsic motivation is a powerful determinant of successful behaviour change. It identifies three key psychological needs that influence motivation:
People have a natural desire to feel in control of their actions and choices. When they believe they have autonomy over a behavior change, motivation increases.
Individuals seek to feel competent in their abilities. Setting achievable goals and tracking progress can enhance the perception of competence, driving motivation.
The need for relatedness involves forming meaningful connections with others. Social support and accountability from friends, family, or support groups can boost motivation.
To effectively harness motivation for behaviour change, it’s essential to align actions with personal values and goals. This fosters intrinsic motivation, which is more sustainable than extrinsic motivators like rewards or punishments.
The power of reinforcement. Understanding Behavioural Conditioning
Positive and negative reinforcement are fundamental concepts in the field of behavioural psychology that play a crucial role in shaping and modifying human and animal behaviour.
These two types of reinforcement are part of operant conditioning, a theory proposed by B.F. Skinner that focuses on how consequences influence the likelihood of a behaviour recurring.
What is positive reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement involves the addition of a favourable stimulus immediately following a behaviour, with the intention of increasing the likelihood that the behaviour will be repeated in the future.
In simpler terms, positive reinforcement aims to strengthen a behaviour by rewarding it with something positive. The key components of positive reinforcement are the behaviour, the stimulus, and the increase in the behaviour’s frequency.
For example, imagine the power of a manager simply saying ‘Thank you” (the stimulus) when one of their team solves an urgent problem (the behaviour). The thank you serves as positive reinforcement, making it more likely that the team member will continue to react and solve problems in the future.
What is negative reinforcement?
Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, involves the removal or avoidance of an aversive stimulus immediately after a behaviour occurs, with the goal of increasing the likelihood of that behaviour happening again.
Essentially, negative reinforcement strengthens behaviour by eliminating or reducing something unpleasant.
An everyday example of negative reinforcement is using an umbrella to shield oneself from rain (behaviour), resulting in the removal of the discomfort of getting wet (aversive stimulus). This makes it more probable that the person will use an umbrella in rainy conditions again.
A work example might be where an employee does their emails on a Sunday evening in order to avoid having to deal with them on Monday morning.
What are the key differences between positive and negative reinforcement?
The main distinction between positive and negative reinforcement lies in the type of stimulus involved.
Positive reinforcement entails adding something pleasant, whereas negative reinforcement involves removing something unpleasant. Despite this difference, both positive and negative reinforcement aim to strengthen behaviours by linking them to specific consequences.
It’s essential to clarify a common misconception about negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. While negative reinforcement seeks to increase a behaviour by removing an aversive stimulus, punishment aims to decrease a behaviour by introducing an unpleasant consequence. In negative reinforcement, the aversive stimulus is removed to encourage the behaviour’s repetition, while punishment involves adding something unfavourable to discourage a behaviour.
What are the downsides of reinforcement?
In our email example above, there is a danger that the behaviour of doing emails on a Sunday to avoid the stress of doing them on Monday actually creates an unhealthy behaviour.
Reinforcement is great for encouraging behaviour, but we need to be careful about what behaviour we are encouraging.
In addition, whilst there is a difference between negative reinforcement and punishment, the distinction can be blurred at work.
As such, we recommend that managers should always utilise positive reinforcement rather than negative wherever possible.
We also recommend that managers should not be afraid to use ‘punishment’ where appropriate. Where employees are clear on what behaviours are rewarded and what behaviours are ‘punished’ they are more likely to adopt the desired way of working.
6 essential strategies for successful behaviour change
Now that we’ve explored the psychological foundations of behaviour change, let’s delve into some practical strategies to make lasting behaviour change.
1. Set clear and specific goals
Vague goals like “lose weight” are less motivating than specific ones, such as “lose 10 pounds in three months.” Specific goals provide direction and measurement.
2. Use positive reinforcement
As we have seen, positive reinforcement is much more powerful than negative reinforcement.
Reward yourself for achieving milestones along your journey. This reinforces the desired behaviour and boosts motivation.
3. Create a support system
Share your goals with friends or join a support group. Social support can provide encouragement and accountability.
4. Practice mindfulness and self-reflection
Developing self-awareness can help you identify triggers and patterns in your behaviour, making it easier to initiate change.
5. Break it down
Divide your larger goal into smaller, manageable steps. This prevents feeling overwhelmed and helps you track progress.
6. Learn from relapses
Setbacks are a natural part of behaviour change. Instead of giving up, use them as opportunities to learn and adjust your strategy.
Understanding the psychology of behaviour change can empower individuals to take control of their lives and make meaningful, lasting changes.
Whether you’re aiming to improve your health, break a bad habit, or achieve personal growth, applying these psychological principles can be the key to success on your journey of self-improvement.