Behavioural Change


In a broad sense, “behavioural change” is the term relating to altering habits and behaviours for the long term. The term is a central category of theories of behavioural change which has been developing since 70’s of XX century. In a literature review by Davis et al. (2015), researchers identified 82 theories of behaviour change relating to individuals, and systematic literature review of existing frameworks by Michie at al. (2011) identified 19 frameworks. Originated from psychology, applied also in some fields of sociology (f.i. research focus on the attitudes consisting of 3 elements: past behaviours, knowledge and emotions toward any social phenomenon [group, problem, issue, place, process etc]). It is a prominent approach applied into research which is used to create and justify public policies (in relation to public health, environmental issues, mobility etc.). 

For the criticism and faults found in the theory of social change and its application (described briefly in sect.2), see: Shove, E. (2010) 

Theories of behavioural change origins from psychology and, since the recognition of human impact on environment (see: Anthropocene) they have been applying to frame researches on sustainable development, specifically behaviour change for sustainable development. Since the1992 Rio Earth Summit and the next steps to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) there has been increased focus on the importance of individual consumption patterns for sustainability. It is assumed that achieving SDGs requires understanding of “how people make decisions and act on them, how they think about, influence, and relate to one another, and how they develop beliefs and attitudes” (UNDP 2016, pp. 1–2). Therefore, the assumption is that an understanding of the factors of human behaviour, gave way to build the programs designed to shift human impact through behaviour change (toward more eco-friendly, environmentally neutral, healthy etc.). Many of the strategies and programs rely on research framed by theories of human behaviour and behaviour change to inform the objectives and the tools of the programs, and effectively target human behaviours. Thus, it can be said that a specific theoretical model of behavioural change “ends” in specific practical programmes, incentives etc. proposed by policy-makers or experts.  

There are three main groups of theories of behavioural change distinguished in the brochure published by the Communication for Governance & Accountability Program, The World Bank: 

1. Social Cognitive Theory – started by Bandura in 1986, it proposes that people are driven not by inner forces, but by external factors. This model explains human functioning by a triadic interaction of behaviour, personal and environmental factors (reciprocal determinism).  

- Environmental factors: situational influences and environment in which behaviour is performed (the context) 

- Personal factors: instincts, drives, traits, individual motivational forces, such as the ability to control emotions, to learn, self-efficacy etc.    

The conclusion is that even when individuals have a strong sense of efficacy, they may not perform the behaviour if they have no incentive, thus to stimulate behaviour change it is important to provide incentives and rewards for the behaviours. Also, shaping the environment may encourage behaviour change. This may include, for example, providing opportunities for behavioural change, assisting with those changes, and offering social support.  

2. Theory of planned behaviour/reasoned action – it posits that behaviours occur because of intention, and intention is influenced by personal attitude and the perceived social norm (Madden, Ellen, & Ajzen, 1992). This suggests that it may be important to present information to help shaping positive attitudes towards the behaviour. It also stresses that subjective norms or opinions that support the behaviour. For perceived behavioural control to influence behaviour change, much like with self-efficacy, a person must perceive that they have the ability to perform the behaviour. 

3. Transtheoretical (Stages of Change) Model - developed by Prochaska and DiClemente in the late ’70s, it proposes change as a process of six stages: 

1) Precontemplation - is the stage in which people are not intending to make a change in the near future (often defined as the next 6 months).  

2) Contemplation is the stage where people intend to change (within the next 6 months). People in this stage are aware of the pros of changing but also can identify the cons.  

3) Preparation represents the stage where people have a plan of action and intend to take action in the immediate future (within a month).  

4) Action is the stage in which people make the behaviour change  

5) Maintenance represents the stage where people work to prevent relapse.  

6) Termination represents that stage where individuals have 100 percent efficacy and will maintain their behaviour. This stage is the most difficult to maintain, so many people remain a lifetime in maintenance. According to this model, it is essential to match behaviour change interventions to people’s stages. For example, if an individual is in the precontemplation stage it is important to raise their awareness about a behaviour in order for them to contemplate making a behaviour change.  

It is emphasised (in the literature) that behaviour change is more complicated than having the knowledge or even the right intentions to behave a certain way. There are so many factors at play, including an individual’s beliefs about their capabilities and barriers, as well as environmental factors, such as social norms. However, theories of behavioural change are powerful not only in psychotherapy; there are used to make a base for social, health, public health policies. Recognized as ABC model (A-attitude, B – behaviour, C – choice) it is often recognised as the way to shaping pro-ecological behaviours: for example: travelling by bike and not by car, turning off the tap while brushing the teeth etc.  

In the paper “Beyond the ABC: climate change policy and theories of social change” Elisabeth Shove presents a negative opinion of this approach, arguing why this way of explaining behaviours is a dead end (for example, the same variable is used both as explaining and explained factors, and the use seems arbitrary). She points out that “the ABC is not just a theory of social change: it is also a template for intervention which locates citizens as consumers and decision makers and which positions governments and other institutions as enablers whose role is to induce people to make pro-environmental decisions for themselves and deter them from opting for other, less desired, courses of action. (…) one key condition is to shift the focus away from individual choice and to be explicit about the extent to which state and other actors configure the fabric and the texture of daily life. There are precedents for this, even within the present policy system: for instance, in areas of public health and urban planning. To give just one example, the concept of an `obesogenic environment' implies that patterns of diet and exercise are socially, institutionally, and infrastructurally configured.” (Shove 2010: 1280-1281) 

  • Popular examples: Smoking cessation, Reducing alcohol intake, Eating healthily, Exercising regularly, Practicing safe sex, Driving safely
  • Examples of the behaviours that are the target of change interventions and relating to environment: Littering, Leaving lights on, Not recycling

Below you can find the list of interventions (by the authors defined as “coordinated sets of activities designed to change specified behaviour patterns, se Michie et. Al 2011: 1) and their examples.  

a. Academic/peer reviwed

Davis, R. Campbell, R., Hildon, Z., Hobbs, L., & Michie, S. (2015). Theories of behaviour and behaviour change across the social and behavioural sciences: A scoping review. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 323-344.

Michie, S., van Stranel, M.M. & West, R. The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Imaplementation Sci 6, 42 (2011).

Shove, E. (2010). Beyond the ABC: climate change policy and theories of social change. Environment and planning A, 42(6), 1273-1285.

b. Other sources

Theories of behavior change (a brochure of Cammunication for Governance & Accountability Program, The World Bank) BehaviorChangeweb.pdf (

Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change (examples) - YouTube

How to motivate yourself to change your behavior - Tali Sharot - TEDxCambridge - YouTube