Three key barriers to behaviour change

11 July

Attitudes and Feelings; Capability and Self-Efficacy; and Environment and Cognition.

6 min read
6 min read
Behavioural change

Behavioural “nudges”, which alter the way choices are presented to people, have been shown to be effective in changing behaviour in some situations. However, they’re a long way from being the silver bullet many initially predicted. In fact, nudges have been severely criticised for many reasons. These include for being unethical, backfiring, and lacking theoretical backing.

A crucial, related question surrounds their ability to help solve more complex challenges.

For example:

Unfortunately, for more complex challenges the jury is out regarding nudges. Instead, the evidence in these situations points towards a need for a more research-led approach.

In particular, rather than jumping straight for a simple, nudge-based solution, it’s critical to first understand in detail a range of potential barriers to the behaviour change we desire.

To help structure thinking, this article presents three key potential barriers to behaviour change – some or all of which may be present in any particular situation. These relate to:

  1. Attitudes and Feelings

  2. Capability and Self-efficacy

  3. Environment and Cognition

Within each area, this article briefly summarises three things:

  • The evidence as to their impact on behaviour

  • The feasibility of ultimately changing behaviour through addressing each

  • The key questions researchers should ask to inform hypotheses and structure thinking 

1.     Attitudes and Feelings          

First, a widely held belief is that attitudes guide behaviour. However, evidence from more than 50 years of research in social psychology shows the association is complex and dependent upon a number of contextual, interpersonal, and structural factors. Further, simply changing attitudes in and of themselves can be very difficult. One key reason for this comes from behavioural economics and relates to confirmation bias. This helps to reduce the likelihood people seek out new information that is contrary to their existing beliefs.

Nevertheless, interventions targeting beliefs have led to significant changes in attitudes, intentions, and behaviour in areas including physical activity and environmental behaviours. However, given the well-recognised challenges of changing behaviour through changing attitudes, it is often necessary to instead consider influencing through feelings. This approach can be especially fruitful if health behaviour change is desired.

Key questions here for researchers therefore include:

  • Do negative or ambivalent attitudes towards behaviour change exist?

  • Do negative or ambivalent feelings towards behaviour change exist? 

2.     Capability and Self-efficacy

The well-respected Behaviour Change Wheel, created from a synthesis of 19 behaviour change frameworks, proposes three key drivers of behaviour: Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation. The first of the three, Capability, relates to skills and to knowledge. Successful interventions to address capability deficiencies often include face-to-face or online training.

However, increased capability may still not lead to a change in behaviour, if people lack the right level of self-efficacy. This is their belief in their capability to change. The construct of self-efficacy comes from social cognitive theory and is a strong predictor of motivation, or intention to change behaviour. Promisingly, research has shown that interventions can be effective both at enhancing self-efficacy and ultimately in changing behaviour. This includes areas such as physical activity and addiction.

Key questions here for researchers therefore include:

  • Are people potentially lacking the necessary skills or knowledge to do a new behaviour?

  • Is a lack of self-efficacy (belief) potentially hindering motivation for behaviour change? 

3.     Environment and Cognition

Unfortunately, even when good attitudes and feelings – and strong capabilities and self-efficacy – exist, research suggests barriers to change may still be present. This is in the form of physical environment constraints. These can include time, resources, or ‘affordance’. Additionally, social environment factors such as interpersonal influences, social cues, or cultural norms may be acting as barriers to change.

On the other hand, cognitive limitations in the ability of the brain to remember or pay attention to prior good intentions at the appropriate time(s) can also impede change. However, research suggests that interventions to remind people of their good intentions – for example, text messages, letters, or phone calls – can be effective in changing behaviour.  

Lastly, behavioural economics-derived heuristics (well-developed mental shortcuts to aid decision-making in uncertain situations) may act as barriers to prior good intentions – as may a raft of inertia-related cognitive biases such as status quo bias. Incentives (which may be tangible, e.g. money, or intangible, e.g. praise) may be effective in countering these barriers. However, incentives can vary in impact based on people’s existing attitudes and feelings. Further, there is longstanding evidence financial incentives can sometimes “crowd out” intrinsic (internal) motivation.

Key questions here for researchers therefore include:

  • Do physical and / or social barriers to change exist?

  • Might people potentially struggle to remember or pay attention to prior good intentions?

  • Is inertia a potential barrier to change? 

Conclusion

This article has presented three key potential barriers to behaviour change: Attitudes and Feelings; Capability and Self-Efficacy; and Environment and Cognition.

However, with only around a quarter of Britons managing to keep to their New Year resolutions, we must also not neglect the reality that even if an initial change does occur, the chances of slipping back into old habits are high. Very often, even if all the other conditions above are in place, motivation levels may still fluctuate – usually because of stronger emotional impulses, needs, or drives to do other, competing behaviours.

In conclusion, alongside the key researcher questions proposed above, we should add one final question: Is maintaining motivation likely to be a barrier to successful behaviour change?

This article is a shortened version of “A 4-part guide to changing behaviour” – a new 30-page guide written by Activate Research.

Chris Harvey
Founder at Activate Research