Behavioural change theories

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Behavioural change theories are attempts to explain why behaviours change. These theories cite environmental, personal, and behavioural characteristics as the major factors in behavioural determination. In recent years, there has been increased interest in the application of these theories in the areas of health, education, criminology, energy and international development with the hope that understanding behavioural change will improve the services offered in these areas. Some scholars have recently introduced a distinction between models of behavior and theories of change. [1] Whereas models of behavior are more diagnostic and geared towards understanding the psychological factors that explain or predict a specific behavior, theories of change are more process-oriented and generally aimed at changing a given behavior. Thus, from this perspective, understanding and changing behavior are two separate but complementary lines of scientific investigation.


General theories and models

Each behavioural change theory or model focuses on different factors in attempting to explain behaviour change. Of the many that exist, the most prevalent are learning theories, social cognitive theory, theories of reasoned action and planned behaviour, transtheoretical model of behavior change, the health action process approach and the BJ Fogg model of behavior change. Research has also been conducted regarding specific elements of these theories, especially elements like self-efficacy that are common to several of the theories.


Self-efficacy [2] is an individual's impression of their own ability to perform a demanding or challenging task such as facing an exam or undergoing surgery. This impression is based upon factors like the individual's prior success in the task or in related tasks, the individual's physiological state, and outside sources of persuasion. Self-efficacy is thought to be predictive of the amount of effort an individual will expend in initiating and maintaining a behavioural change, so although self-efficacy is not a behavioural change theory per se, it is an important element of many of the theories, including the health belief model, the theory of planned behaviour and the health action process approach.

Learning theories and behaviours analytic theories of change

Social learning and social cognitive theory

According to the social learning theory [3] (more recently expanded as social cognitive theory [4] ), behavioural change is determined by environmental, personal, and behavioural elements. Each factor affects each of the others. For example, in congruence with the principles of self-efficacy, an individual's thoughts affect their behaviour and an individual's characteristics elicit certain responses from the social environment. Likewise, an individual's environment affects the development of personal characteristics as well as the person's behavior, and an individual's behaviour may change their environment as well as the way the individual thinks or feels. Social learning theory focuses on the reciprocal interactions between these factors, which are hypothesised to determine behavioral change.

Theory of reasoned action

The theory of reasoned action [5] [6] assumes that individuals consider a behaviour's consequences before performing the particular behaviour. As a result, intention is an important factor in determining behaviour and behavioural change. According to Icek Ajzen, intentions develop from an individual's perception of a behaviour as positive or negative together with the individual's impression of the way their society perceives the same behaviour. Thus, personal attitude and social pressure shape intention, which is essential to performance of a behaviour and consequently behavioural change.

Theory of planned behaviour

In 1985, Ajzen expanded upon the theory of reasoned action, formulating the theory of planned behaviour, [7] which also emphasises the role of intention in behaviour performance but is intended to cover cases in which a person is not in control of all factors affecting the actual performance of a behaviour. As a result, the new theory states that the incidence of actual behaviour performance is proportional to the amount of control an individual possesses over the behaviour and the strength of the individual's intention in performing the behaviour. In his article, Further hypothesises that self-efficacy is important in determining the strength of the individual's intention to perform a behaviour. In 2010, Fishbein and Ajzen introduced the reasoned action approach, the successor of the theory of planned behaviour.

Transtheoretical or stages of change model

According to the transtheoretical model [8] [9] of behavior change, also known as the stages of change model, states that there are five stages towards behavior change. The five stages, between which individuals may transition before achieving complete change, are precontemplation, contemplation, preparation for action, action, and maintenance. At the precontemplation stage, an individual may or may not be aware of a problem but has no thought of changing their behavior. From precontemplation to contemplation, the individual begins thinking about changing a certain behavior. During preparation, the individual begins his plans for change, and during the action stage the individual begins to exhibit new behavior consistently. An individual finally enters the maintenance stage once they exhibit the new behavior consistently for over six months. A problem faced with the stages of change model is that it is very easy for a person to enter the maintenance stage and then fall back into earlier stages. Factors that contribute to this decline include external factors such as weather or seasonal changes, and/or personal issues a person is dealing with.

Health action process approach

The health action process approach (HAPA) [10] is designed as a sequence of two continuous self-regulatory processes, a goal-setting phase (motivation) and a goal-pursuit phase (volition). The second phase is subdivided into a pre-action phase and an action phase. Motivational self-efficacy, outcome-expectancies and risk perceptions are assumed to be predictors of intentions. This is the motivational phase of the model. The predictive effect of motivational self-efficacy on behaviour is assumed to be mediated by recovery self-efficacy, and the effects of intentions are assumed to be mediated by planning. The latter processes refer to the volitional phase of the model.

Fogg Behavior Model

The BJ Fogg Behavior Model. The different levels of ability and motivation define whether triggers for behavior change will succeed or fail. As an example trying to trigger behavior change through something difficult to do (low ability) will only succeed with very high motivation. In contrast, trying to trigger behavior change through something easy to do (high ability) may succeed even with average motivation. BFM.svg
The BJ Fogg Behavior Model. The different levels of ability and motivation define whether triggers for behavior change will succeed or fail. As an example trying to trigger behavior change through something difficult to do (low ability) will only succeed with very high motivation. In contrast, trying to trigger behavior change through something easy to do (high ability) may succeed even with average motivation.

The Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) [11] is a design behavior change model introduced by BJ Fogg. This model posits that behavior is composed of three different factors: motivation, ability and triggers. Under the FBM, for any person (user) to succeed at behavior change needs to be motivated, have the ability to perform the behavior and needs a trigger to perform this behavior. The next are the definitions of each of the elements of the BFM:


BJ Fogg does not provide a definition of motivation but instead defines different motivators:

  • Pleasure/Pain: These motivators produce a response immediately and although powerful these are not ideal. Boosting motivation could be achieved by embodying pain or pleasure.
  • Hope/fear: Both these motivators have a delayed response and are the anticipation of a future positive outcome (hope) or negative outcome (fear). As an example people joining a dating website hope to meet other people.
  • Social acceptance/rejection: People are motivated by behaviors that increase or preserve their social acceptance.


This factor refers to the self efficacy perception at performing a target behavior. Although low ability is undesirable it may be unavoidable: "We are fundamentally lazy" according to BJ Fogg. In such case behavior change is approached not through learning but instead by promoting target behaviors for which the user has a high ability. Additionally BJ Fogg list several elements or dimensions that characterize high ability or simplicity of performing a behavior:

  • Time: The user has the time to perform the target behavior or the time taken is very low.
  • Money: The user has enough financial resources for pursuing the behavior. In some cases money can buy time.
  • Physical effort: Target behaviors that require of physical effort may not be simple enough to be performed.
  • Brain cycles: Target behaviors that require of high cognitive resources may not be simple hence undesirable for behavior change.
  • Social deviance: These comprehend behaviors that make the user socially deviant. These kind of behaviors are not simple
  • Non-routine: Any behavior that incurs disrupting a routine is considered not simple. Simple behaviors are usually part of routines and hence easy to follow.


Triggers are reminders that may be explicit or implicit about the performance of a behavior. Examples of triggers can be alarms, text messages or advertisement, triggers are usually perceptual in nature but may also be intrinsic. One of the most important aspects of a trigger is timing as only certain times are best for triggering certain behaviors. As an example if a person is trying to go to the gym everyday, but only remembers about packing clothing once out of the house it is less likely that this person will head back home and pack. In contrast if an alarm sounds right before leaving the house reminding about packing clothing, this will take considerably less effort. Although the original article does not have any references for the reasoning or theories behind the model, some of its elements can be traced to social psychology theories, e.g., the motivation and ability factors and its success or failure are related to Self-efficacy.


Behavioural change theories can be used as guides in developing effective teaching methods. Since the goal of much education is behavioural change, the understanding of behaviour afforded by behavioural change theories provides insight into the formulation of effective teaching methods that tap into the mechanisms of behavioural change. In an era when education programs strive to reach large audiences with varying socioeconomic statuses, the designers of such programs increasingly strive to understand the reasons behind behavioural change in order to understand universal characteristics that may be crucial to program design.

In fact, some of the theories, like the social learning theory and theory of planned behaviour, were developed as attempts to improve health education. Because these theories address the interaction between individuals and their environments, they can provide insight into the effectiveness of education programs given a specific set of predetermined conditions, like the social context in which a program will be initiated. Although health education is still the area in which behavioural change theories are most often applied, theories like the stages of change model have begun to be applied in other areas like employee training and developing systems of higher education.


Empirical studies in criminology support behavioural change theories[ citation needed ]. At the same time, the general theories of behavioural change suggest possible explanations to criminal behaviour and methods of correcting deviant behaviour. Since deviant behaviour correction entails behavioural change, understanding of behavioural change can facilitate the adoption of effective correctional methods in policy-making. For example, the understanding that deviant behaviour like stealing may be learned behaviour resulting from reinforcers like hunger satisfaction that are unrelated to criminal behaviour can aid the development of social controls that address this underlying issue rather than merely the resultant behaviour.

Specific theories that have been applied to criminology include the social learning and differential association theories. Social learning theory's element of interaction between an individual and their environment explains the development of deviant behaviour as a function of an individual's exposure to a certain behaviour and their acquaintances, who can reinforce either socially acceptable or socially unacceptable behaviour. Differential association theory, originally formulated by Edwin Sutherland, is a popular, related theoretical explanation of criminal behaviour that applies learning theory concepts and asserts that deviant behaviour is learned behaviour.


Recent years have seen an increased interest in energy consumption reduction based on behavioural change, be it for reasons of climate change mitigation or energy security. The application of behavioural change theories in the field of energy consumption behaviour yields interesting insights. For example, it supports criticism of a too narrow focus on individual behaviour and a broadening to include social interaction, lifestyles, norms and values as well as technologies and policies—all enabling or constraining behavioural change. [12]


Besides the models and theories of behavior change there are methods for promoting behavior change. Among them one of the most widely used is Tailoring or personalization.


Tailoring refers to methods for personalizing communications intended to generate higher behavior change than non personalized ones. [13] There are two main claims for why tailoring works: Tailoring may improve preconditions for message processing and tailoring may improve impact by altering starting behavioral determinants of goal outcomes. The different message processing mechanisms can be summarized into: Attention, Effortful processing, Emotional processing and self-reference.

Behavioral determinants of goal outcomes are the different psychological and social constructs that have a direct influence on behavior. The three most used mediators in tailoring are attitude, perception of performance and self efficacy. Although results are largely positive they are not consistent and more research on the elements that make tailoring work is necessary.


Behavioural change theories are not universally accepted. Criticisms include the theories' emphases on individual behaviour and a general disregard for the influence of environmental factors on behaviour. In addition, as some theories were formulated as guides to understanding behaviour while others were designed as frameworks for behavioural interventions, the theories' purposes are not consistent. Such criticism illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of the theories, showing that there is room for further research into behavioural change theories.

See also

Related Research Articles

Persuasive technology is broadly defined as technology that is designed to change attitudes or behaviors of the users through persuasion and social influence, but not through coercion. Such technologies are regularly used in sales, diplomacy, politics, religion, military training, public health, and management, and may potentially be used in any area of human-human or human-computer interaction. Most self-identified persuasive technology research focuses on interactive, computational technologies, including desktop computers, Internet services, video games, and mobile devices, but this incorporates and builds on the results, theories, and methods of experimental psychology, rhetoric, and human-computer interaction. The design of persuasive technologies can be seen as a particular case of design with intent.

Motivation is the experience of desire or aversion. As such, motivation has both an objective aspect and an internal or subjective aspect.

Social learning theory is a theory of learning process and social behavior which proposes that new behaviors can be acquired by observing and imitating others. It states that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction, even in the absence of motor reproduction or direct reinforcement. In addition to the observation of behavior, learning also occurs through the observation of rewards and punishments, a process known as vicarious reinforcement. When a particular behavior is rewarded regularly, it will most likely persist; conversely, if a particular behavior is constantly punished, it will most likely desist. The theory expands on traditional behavioral theories, in which behavior is governed solely by reinforcements, by placing emphasis on the important roles of various internal processes in the learning individual.

In psychology, attitude is a psychological construct, a mental and emotional entity that inheres in, or characterizes a person. They are complex and are an acquired state through experiences. It is an individual's predisposed state of mind regarding a value and it is precipitated through a responsive expression towards oneself, a person, place, thing, or event which in turn influences the individual's thought and action. Prominent psychologist Gordon Allport described this latent psychological construct as "the most distinctive and indispensable concept in contemporary social psychology." Attitude can be formed from a person's past and present. Key topics in the study of attitudes include attitude strength, attitude change, consumer behavior, and attitude-behavior relationships.

Behavior change, in context of public health, refers to efforts put in place to change people's personal habits and attitudes, to prevent disease. Behavior change in public health is also known as social and behavior change communication (SBCC). More and more, efforts focus on prevention of disease to save healthcare care costs. This is particularly important in low and middle income countries, such as Ghana, where health interventions have come under increased scrutiny because of the cost.

Theory of planned behavior in psychology, a theory that links ones beliefs and behavior

In psychology, the theory of planned behaviour is a theory that links one's beliefs and behaviour.

Transtheoretical model integrative theory of therapy that assesses an individuals readiness to act on a new healthier behavior, and provides strategies, or processes of change to guide the individua

The transtheoretical model of behavior change is an integrative theory of therapy that assesses an individual's readiness to act on a new healthier behavior, and provides strategies, or processes of change to guide the individual. The model is composed of constructs such as: stages of change, processes of change, levels of change, self-efficacy, and decisional balance.

Self-efficacy is, according to psychologist Albert Bandura who originally proposed the concept, a personal judgment of "how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations".

The theory of reasoned action aims to explain the relationship between attitudes and behaviours within human action. It is mainly used to predict how individuals will behave based on their pre-existing attitudes and behavioral intentions. An individual's decision to engage in a particular behavior is based on the outcomes the individual expects will come as a result of performing the behavior. Developed by Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen in 1967, the theory derived from previous research in social psychology, persuasion models, and attitude theories. Fishbein's theories suggested a relationship between attitude and behaviors. However, critics estimated that attitude theories were not proving to be good indicators of human behavior. The TRA was later revised and expanded by the two theorists in the following decades to overcome any discrepancies in the A-B relationship with the theory of planned behavior (TPB) and reasoned action approach (RAA). The theory is also used in communication discourse as a theory of understanding.

Motivational therapy is a combination of humanistic treatment and enhanced cognitive-behavioral strategies, designed to treat substance abuse. It is similar to motivational interviewing and motivational enhancement therapy.

Social cognitive theory (SCT), used in psychology, education, and communication, holds that portions of an individual's knowledge acquisition can be directly related to observing others within the context of social interactions, experiences, and outside media influences. This theory was advanced by Albert Bandura as an extension of his social learning theory. The theory states that when people observe a model performing a behavior and the consequences of that behavior, they remember the sequence of events and use this information to guide subsequent behaviors. Observing a model can also prompt the viewer to engage in behavior they already learned. In other words, people do not learn new behaviors solely by trying them and either succeeding or failing, but rather, the survival of humanity is dependent upon the replication of the actions of others. Depending on whether people are rewarded or punished for their behavior and the outcome of the behavior, the observer may choose to replicate behavior modeled. Media provides models for a vast array of people in many different environmental settings.

Expectancy-value theory has been developed in many different fields including education, health, communications, marketing and economics. Although the model differs in its meaning and implications for each field, the general idea is that there are expectations as well as values or beliefs that affect subsequent behavior.

Health belief model

The health belief model (HBM) is a social psychological health behavior change model developed to explain and predict health-related behaviors, particularly in regard to the uptake of health services. The HBM was developed in the 1950s by social psychologists at the U.S. Public Health Service and remains one of the best known and most widely used theories in health behavior research. The HBM suggests that people's beliefs about health problems, perceived benefits of action and barriers to action, and self-efficacy explain engagement in health-promoting behavior. A stimulus, or cue to action, must also be present in order to trigger the health-promoting behavior.

Fear appeal is a term used in psychology, sociology and marketing. It generally describes a strategy for motivating people to take a particular action, endorse a particular policy, or buy a particular product, by arousing fear. A well-known example in television advertising was a commercial employing the musical jingle: "Never pick up a stranger, pick up Prestone anti-freeze." This was accompanied by images of shadowy strangers (hitchhikers) who would presumably do one harm if picked up. The commercial's main appeal was not to the positive features of Prestone anti-freeze, but to the fear of what a "strange" brand might do.

In psychology, the I-change model or the Integrated Model, for explaining motivational and behavioral change, derives from the Attitude – Social Influence – Self-Efficacy Model, integrates ideas of Ajzen's Theory of Planned Behavior, Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory, Prochaska's Transtheoretical Model, the Health Belief Model, and Goal setting theories. Previous versions of this model have been used to explain a variety of types of health behavior.

Health action process approach Theory of health behavior change

The health action process approach (HAPA) is a psychological theory of health behavior change, developed by Ralf Schwarzer, Professor of Psychology at the Free University of Berlin, Germany.

Protection motivation theory is a theory that was originally created to help clarify fear appeals. The protection motivation theory proposes that people protect themselves based on four factors: the perceived severity of a threatening event, the perceived probability of the occurrence, or vulnerability, the efficacy of the recommended preventive behavior, and the perceived self efficacy. Protection motivation stems from both the threat appraisal and the coping appraisal. The threat appraisal assesses the severity of the situation and examines how serious the situation is. The coping appraisal is how one responds to the situation. The coping appraisal consists of both efficacy and self-efficacy. Efficacy is the individual's expectancy that carrying out recommendations can remove the threat. Self-efficacy is the belief in one's ability to execute the recommended courses of action successfully. PMT is one model that explains why people engage in unhealthy practices and offers suggestions for changing those behaviors. It is educational and motivational. Primary prevention: taking measures to combat the risk of developing a health problem.. Secondary prevention: taking steps to prevent a condition from becoming worse..

The reasoned-action approach (RAA) is an integrative framework for the prediction of human social behavior. The reasoned-action approach states that attitudes towards the behavior, perceived norms, and perceived behavioral control determine people's intentions, while people's intentions predict their behaviors.

Coaching psychology is a field of applied psychology that applies psychological theories and concepts to the practice of coaching. Its aim is to increase performance, achievement and well-being in individuals, teams and organisations by utilising evidence-based methods grounded in scientific research. Coaching psychology is influenced by theories in various psychological fields, such as humanistic psychology, positive psychology, learning theory and social psychology.

A Behaviour Change Support System (BCSS) is any information and communications technology (ICT) tool, web platform, or gamified environment which targets behavioral changes in its end-users. BCSS are built upon persuasive systems design techniques..


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