To support behaviour change, we need to understand how it works

It can be difficult to know how to support people to make the behaviour changes that are so desperately needed in order to tackle climate change. In this blog, Lucy Richardson explores a tool for understanding how behaviour changes and how it can be used to identify ways to help people at different stages of the behaviour change process.

Cycling in the snow, Copenhagen

This article is part of the ISC’s new series, Transform21, which will explore the state of knowledge and action, five years on from the Paris Agreement and in a pivotal year for action on sustainable development.

Have you ever thought about changing your behaviour to be nicer to the environment or the climate? If you’re anything like me, you’ve had some successes and some failures at this type of change, and while we sometimes think we know why we did or didn’t try and why we did or didn’t succeed, you might be surprised at how many factors influence our behaviour subconsciously.

Researchers have been examining the factors that influence behaviour for decades, and likely for centuries or millennia if we think beyond recorded science. Many different theories have been used to explain behaviour, some more effective than others, and some more effective for certain behaviours but not others. Most of these theories, however, focused on explaining factors that influence behaviour, but not the process of how behaviour actually changes.

A useful theory that was posed in recent years draws together several of the older theories in a way that more clearly shows the process of how behaviour changes. This theory is the Staged Model of Self-regulated Behavioural Change, which focuses specifically on behaviours changed voluntarily, and includes factors that contribute to making the initial decision to change.

This theory describes four stages of behaviour change: pre-decision, pre-action, action and post-action. In an ideal world, each of these stages progresses in neat and seamless order towards embedding a new behaviour, however the path is not always a straight line and individuals can become stuck in one stage without progressing, or even fall back to an earlier stage when things don’t work out.

The pre-decision stage

In the pre-decision stage, we recognize that there is a problem that we bear some responsibility for addressing, and our emotional responses to the problem, and our role in helping, assist in motivating us to a general decision to change our behaviour. This decision is classed as a goal intention and might express itself as a desire to adopt lower emissions transport options, for example.

At this point we don’t yet have a clear plan on exactly what we will do, but we have decided to change. Someone may linger in this stage if they are not aware that there is a problem, if they don’t recognize that they could help or that they have a responsibility to help, or if they don’t see a practical and achievable way they can contribute.

The pre-action stage

In the pre-action stage, our attitudes towards each of the different behavioural options we could implement to achieve our goal intention are weighed up against our perception of how easy it will be for us to implement them. In the lower emissions transport example, this might mean weighing up the options of walking, cycling or taking public transport to work. This evaluation leads us to identifying a specific behaviour that we want to change – to develop a behaviour intention. This intention captures what we want to change, but doesn’t yet include exactly how we will do that. For example, we might decide we prefer the idea of cycling to work, but we haven’t yet figured out the details of exactly what that would involve.

If our evaluation doesn’t find a specific behaviour that we think will work for us, we may drop back into the pre-decision stage and rethink our goal intention, or we may get stuck in the pre-action stage as we consider additional alternatives or decide that we need to wait and make the change at a later date when some situational factor changes. For example, if you also have to drop two young children at childcare on your way to work, the cycling, walking and public transport options may not seem viable.

The action stage

In the action stage, we develop a plan for exactly how we will implement our new desired behaviour. We examine when we will do it, what resources or equipment we need to help us do it, and we gauge what might prevent us from maintaining the behaviour so we can be prepared to avoid or overcome those barriers – we develop an implementation intention. So if we had chosen the cycle-to-work behaviour option, this stage might involve selecting our cycling route, determining how long it will take us to commute this way, and working out which model of bicycle and safety gear we will purchase. We would decide exactly what time we needed to wake, when to leave home, and where we’ll store the bicycle while at work and at home.

Similar to the pre-action stage, if we are unable to identify a practical plan for implementing our chosen behaviour, we may drop back to an earlier stage to re-evaluate our decisions. We may also get stuck in this stage while we work through various challenges.

The post-action stage

In the post-action stage, we have started doing our chosen behaviour and our focus is on maintaining the change. We may experience setbacks and may discover barriers we didn’t expect that force us to drop back to an earlier stage and re-evaluate our choices. For cycling to work, we might find that dark or cold winter mornings cause us to stop cycling for a period. Getting back on track after these setbacks is important for continuing this behaviour, but this isn’t always possible. Alternatively, we might discover that we get too sweaty after cycling to work and there are no shower facilities, which may force us to reconsider this behaviour choice and drop back to the pre-action stage to assess alternative behaviours.

The post-action stage ends when the new behaviour has become our habit and we no longer have to work so hard to maintain it. If you’ve made it this far in a behaviour change that you’ve tried to implement, congratulations! It can be a marathon effort sometimes.

A free guide has been developed based on research applying the Staged Model of Self-regulated Behavioural Change. This guide aims to help behaviour change campaign designers to  work out what information and messages are important for helping people at each stage of change. Hopefully this guide will help you decide how you can best support behaviour change and what other information you may wish to seek out to help support people across more stages of change and across more behaviours. The guide is relevant for quite diverse behaviours, although the examples listed in the guide are drawn from the climate change space. You can access the Supporting Climate-friendly Behaviour Change guide on the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub website.


Lucy Richardson

Dr Lucy Richardson is based at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University, on the lands of the Kulin Nations, Melbourne, Australia, and a member of the Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort established by The Association of Commonwealth Universities and the British Council to support 26 rising-star researchers to bring local knowledge to a global stage in the lead-up to COP26.


Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen / Copenhagenize Design Co. / Copenhagen

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