Changing Behaviour


The vast majority of people change their behaviour with no external help. They just do it. ‘Change experts’ include psychologists who advocate behaviour change techniques in their interventions. A behaviour change technique (BCT) is any systematic procedure (or a category of procedures) included as an active component of an intervention designed to change behaviour. The defining characteristics of a BCT are that it is:

• Observable
• Replicable
• Irreducible
• A component of an intervention designed to change behaviour
• A postulated active ingredient within the intervention (Michie et al., 2011).

The description, classification and investigation of BCTs has become a cottage industry. Places like UCL, Aberdeen and Cambridge Universities, together with IBM, have received several millions of pounds from the Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust to construct an ‘ontology’ of behaviour change.

According to the project website, “Behavioural Scientists are developing an ‘ontology’: a defined set of entities and their relationships” which will be used to “organise information in a form that enables efficient accumulation of knowledge and enables links to other knowledge systems.”

bs-diagramdetailedThe top level of the ‘Behaviour Change Intervention Ontology’ (project website)

An ontology is a set of concepts and categories in a subject area that shows their properties and the relations between them. An ontology can only be helpful when nothing of importance to the system as a whole is left out.

A ‘BCT Taxonomy’ has been employed to code descriptions of intervention content into BCTs (Michie et al., 2011, 2013). The taxonomy aims to code protocols in order to transparently describe the techniques used to change behaviour so that protocols could be made clearer and studies could be replicated (Michie and Abraham, 2008; Michie et al, 2011). A taxonomy also can be used to identify which techniques are most effective so that intervention effectiveness could be raised and more people would change behaviour.

The production of a structured list of BCTs provides a ‘compendium’ of behaviour change methods which helps to map the domain of behaviour change and inform practitioner decision-making. However it also risks becoming a prescriptive ‘cook-book’ of what therapeutic techniques must be applied to patients presenting with a specific behavioural problem.

Another problem with the compendium approach is that BCTs are not all optimally effective when combined in ‘pick-and-mix’ fashion. There needs to be coherence to the package that is provided by a theory that offers power and meaning and connects the components into a working set.

I can illustrate this point by considering an intervention for smoking cessation, Stop Smoking Now (Marks, 2017). This therapy is an effective method for clearing the human body of nicotine. The desire to smoke and any satisfaction from smoking are abolished using different forms of CBT and mindfulness meditation. Stop Smoking Now includes 30 BCTs integrated within a coherent theory of change based on the concept of homeostasis. In Stop Smoking Now a structured sequence of BCTs is provided that takes into account the nesting of BCTs such that guided imagery works best in combination with relaxation and both of these work best following enhancement of self-efficacy, achieved using self-recording, positive affirmations and counter-conditioning.   In addition, our field evidence shows that the outcome is enhanced by having a personable delivery from a charismatic person who builds a positive therapeutic alliance.                  

bs-diagramdetailedWith so many missing elements, this an Incomplete Model of Behaviour Change

Where is the client person in the ‘Behaviour Change Intervention Ontology’, and what about their feelings and their own striving for new balance and equilibrium?  Where is the therapist and the therapeutic alliance?  The quality of the change agent, their clinical and interpersonal skills and the quality of the therapeutic alliance can be more important than the BCTs (Hilton & Johnston, 2017) .With so many missing elements, this is beginning to appear like a top-down model of behaviour change. One may be excused for wondering whether the people designing the ‘ontology’ have any real-world hands-on experience of delivering interventions.

Hagger and Hardcastle (2014) suggest that “Interpersonal style should be included in taxonomies of behavior change techniques”. The whole point is that the therapeutic alliance is something the therapist and the client need to strive for. The alliance creates a more equal power balance between therapist and the client. It is more important than another technique, another item on the list. It is more about the ‘chemistry’ of the client-therapist relationship than about a finely polished set of BCTs. The trouble is that the advocates of the BCT compendium/ontology appear unwilling to engage with the problem. Somewhat ironically, they are resistant to change. However, the problem will not just go away, but rears its head each and every time a therapist swings into action.

Behaviour change involves a collaboration between the client wanting to make the change, with their own desires and feelings, and the change agent/therapist. The therapeutic alliance between the two parties is crucial to the project’s ‘outcome’.  Therapist’s attributes such as being flexible, honest, respectful, trustworthy, confident, warm, interested, and open contribute to that alliance. From all of this it can readily be seen that the situation is far more complex than the proposed ‘Behaviour Change Intervention Ontology’. It is never as  simplistic as an ‘Intervention’,  ‘Mechanisms of Action’ and ‘Target Behaviour’.

To use an analogy, there is so much more to baking a cake than a set of ingredients. Of course one needs a set of ingredients (the BCTs) but one also needs a baker – the behaviour change agent (BCA). The BCA/therapist must be fully trained to prepare, mix and cook the ingredients, to be fully competent to deliver the BCTs in a stylish manner. The qualities of effective therapists have been studied for at least 50 years. The stock piling of a compendium of BCT ingredients without attending to the mixing and ‘baking’ of the ingredients by the BCA on the front line is a recipe for disaster.

smart chef character cooking behind kitchen table with various o

Including therapist attributes of flexibility, authenticity, respect, trustworthiness, confidence,  warmth, interest, and openness, along with the client’s goals, desires and striving provides a more accurate and comprehensive approach to behaviour change.