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Effective principles for changing behavior

What are the most effective ways to change such behavior? (Based on current research, extrapolations of research, the perspective of different research literatures).


Motivational Interviewing

It is extremely difficult to change people's behavior when they are not motivated to do so, and they can often react negatively to arguments that they "should" change behavior or pressures to change, even in cases where they desire the change. Motivational interviewing refers to a set of techniques that can be used to help people come to the conclusion that they want to change and recognize their personal reasons and values for change, rather than prescribing change to them.

It can also be useful even with people who express a desire to change. Articulating the reasons they personally want to change and tying the benefits of change to a person's core values can make them more likely to maintain attempts to change, than simply them attempting a course of behavior change because they think they should or want to try it out, and haven't fully considered why it is important to them.

This article gives a brief summary of motivational interviewing: "What is motivational interviewing?", Rollnick & Miller 1995, Behavior and Cognitive Psychotherapy.

A set of Google Scholar search results on Motivational Interviewing

A review of 29 randomized controlled trials using Motivational Interviewing

Very brief interventions in doctor visits that use motivational interviewing techniques
This assesses the effect of a program to train clinicians to use motivational interviewing, on their actual implementation of its practices

Related concept of reactance: tendency to resist a perceived restriction of behavioral freedoms – which even personally valuable behavior change can be identified as.



One of the most effective ways to change behavior may not be targeting the behavior directly, but instead changing people's implicit underlying assumptions about whether behaviors or personalities in general are fixed or malleable.

It may seem obvious – or at least most would agree once it's pointed out to them – that people will be more likely to change a behavior if they believe it can be changed. But many interventions to change behavior don't make this a central feature. It could be argued that it is more important to retain the typical focus on making people more motivated or providing instruction on how to change a specific habit and behavior. Beliefs about whether a behavior change can be achieved can then follow suit.

The key value of the work on implicit theories is explicating what form this knowledge takes, how it can be changed, and what the impact is. For example, for a brief overview see:


Some studies have revealed extremely impressive findings: teaching middle school students and undergraduates that intelligence is malleable (rather than fixed) can improve their actual grades. Very few interventions impact such an important and broad measure, despite using far more time and resources. They are also often restricted to just one content area or set of skills. Little work has examined how changing mindsets can result in greater behavior change, but there is a great deal of potential.




"Cognitive Behavioral Therapy" refers to a diverse range of techniques used in psychotherapy, but a key idea is helping people to recognize how their feelings are generated by the beliefs and evaluations they automatically make about events. 

  For example, after making a comment in conversation a person can worry that it was foolish or inconsiderate and become stressed and anxious. An "ABC" technique would help the person recognize the Activating event (e.g. making comment), uncover the Beliefs that influence its interpretation (e.g. I said something stupid, everyone thinks I am stupid, I shouldn't have said something so dumb), and understand how a Consequence (e.g. stress, anxiety) is produced by their interpretation of the Activating event in light of their Beliefs. 
    It is natural for people to respond to intense feelings as if they reflected reality. But CBT techniques help people to train themselves to notice, understand, and change the automatic and unconscious reasoning their mind engages in. Developing these skills lets people manage their emotional responses, ensuring that they are realistic and helpful rather than disproportionate to actual events and maladaptive. 

     Here is some content from the Wikipedia article: "The particular therapeutic techniques vary within the different approaches of CBT according to the particular kind of problem issues, but commonly may include keeping a diary of significant events and associated feelings, thoughts and behaviors; questioning and testing cognitions, assumptions, evaluations and beliefs that might be unhelpful and unrealistic; gradually facing activities which may have been avoided; and trying out new ways of behaving and reacting. Relaxation, mindfulness and distraction techniques are also commonly included."
    CBTs emphasize: (1) A person's active role in learning new mental habits to bring about change. (2) Noticing and observing thoughts and feelings. (3) Learning specific sets of mental skills and techniques to adjust thinking. (4) Identifying and solving concrete problems by applying these techniques in particular situations, using repeated practice and even doing "homework" exercises.
    CBTs have been applied to anxiety, stress, depression, substance abuse, insomnia, procrastination, smoking, and overeating. They have been successfully delivered in one-on-one face therapy, groups, phone delivery, online and through computer programs, and even in the form of "bilbiotherapy": reading and completing exercises in a CBT self-help book.