• Julie de Vaan

Behaviour and behavioural change 101: The Basics

Behaviour and behavioural change. What is it, and what should or could you do with it? We briefly explain the principles of behavioural change.



The situation we find ourselves in determines our behaviour


The behaviour we show is greatly influenced by the situation we find ourselves in. This because often, we are not able to carefully take everything in consideration and think our choices through. We simply don't have the time, motivation and energy for that. To save our energy, we have all kinds of "buttons" in our head. These ensure that all day long we can make choices without actively thinking them through. The buttons are pushed by signals that we receive from outside. This way, we continuously respond to the situation in which we find ourselves. And in general, that's a good thing, because otherwise we would spend all day collecting information, weighing this up, predicting the future and thinking about which choices we should make. This way, we would get very little done and still be very tired at the end of the day. ​ ​

The situation doesn't always get the best out of behaviour

But despite the buttons in our heads, we remain people, not machines. Our operating system does not always work systematically, controlled or rationally. This is because it is influenced by the human (innate, evolutionary determined) and personal (individual) aspect. For example by what we (think we) already know; by what we hear, see or smell at the moment of choice; or by associations we have. From an evolutionary point of view, the buttons in our heads are very useful: they helped us survive in primeval times, and still do in the present. They warn us, guide us and save us a lot of time and energy. But in many situations they also put us on the wrong track. This is because situations change much faster than our buttons and our operating system do. A few simple examples:


  • A sweet taste evolutionarily indicates an energy source for the body. That is why we generally prefer sweet. But with the amount of sugar available today, sweets are a culprit for our health. Yet we continue to crave it.


  • In the past, there was little food available as energy for our body, saving energy was an important skill for survival. Nowadays, there is sufficient nutrition to serve as a source of energy in the western world. Still we love doing nothing, so we often struggle with change and often choose for the easy way.


  • In the past, people traveled less far, so they did not come into contact with groups with other characteristics (such as religious characteristics or looks). Now we can travel to the other side of the world in just a few hours. It is normal to come into contact with people from other parts of the world, or to live with people who (originally) come from other parts of the world. Yet we often still treat each other as "unknown", and thus as potentially scary and dangerous.

The buttons in our head and our operating system can also limit us or even cause us problems. When a situation pushes the wrong buttons, we continue to engage in undesirable behaviour, accept non-ideal or unwanted situations, and make the same incorrect assumptions and unwise choices over and over again. As long as the situation does not change, our behaviour will not change.



Create a situation that makes the most of behaviour ​

In order to change or get the best out of behaviour, it is often assumed that we are perfectly able to always make the right decisions. Therefore, when trying to change behaviour, the focus usually lies on providing information, increasing knowledge or emphasizing the consequences of our behaviour. When we are able to think consciously and carefully, we will then indeed make the perfect choices.

But that is often not the case. If we do not have the necessary attention, intention or cognitive capacity at the moment of choice to make a rational decision, we will act on the basis of our buttons and our automatic operating system.

The way in which the situation is organised, determines which buttons are pushed and which behaviour we show. The most effective way to change behaviour is to create a situation that pushes the right buttons. People will then show the desired behaviour on automatic pilot.

Behavioural change is about examining and understanding which buttons in our head determine our behaviour, how the situation pushes these buttons, and how the situation should push these buttons to lead to certain behaviour. With this expertise, you can create a situation that makes the most of behaviour.


“Busy people are trying to cope in a complex world in which they cannot afford to think deeply about every choice they have to make. They adopt sensible rules of thumb that sometimes lead them astray” - Thaler & Sunstein in Nudge

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