How to change behaviors: 9 Strategies used by therapists
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
As we've mentioned in a few recent newsletters, the ClearerThinking team is currently hard at work on a new tool designed to help users change their daily habits for the better.
As a result, we've been reviewing the existing academic literature around behavior formation and behavior change, which principally comes from psychology. Some form of behavior change strategy is an important component of virtually every established form of therapy — such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, person-centered therapy, and Freudian psychoanalysis — and many behavior change strategies appear in multiple different types of therapies.
Today we're sharing a simple taxonomy of these behavior change strategies. You're likely to recognize the broad strokes of most of them, and we'll provide a list of specific examples of each so that you know what they might look like in practice. These strategies aren't mutually exclusive, either — you can (and arguably should!) try combining several of them if you're aiming to change the way you behave on a daily basis.
The framework we've described here, along with many of the ideas and terms contained therein, comes from James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente's book Changing For Good, which we'd strongly recommend reading. We've modified and expanded their useful list of behavior change strategies somewhat for your benefit using findings from other aspects of our research. One of the most effective way to change behavior is to consider which of these techniques best applies to the change you are trying to make.
Strategy 1: Consciousness-Raising
This strategy is the most therapeutically common approach to behavior change. Despite its rather airy-sounding name, Consciousness-Raising is also one of the simplest and most straightforward behavior change strategies. Its premise: increase your level of knowledge and awareness around the issue in question so that you're better equipped to make good decisions about it. This strategy can involve arriving at deep revelations about yourself during therapy sessions, or something as simple as learning more about how to effectively balance diet and exercise for weight loss purposes.
Possible forms of Consciousness-Raising:
Developing new interpretations of your thoughts, feelings or behavior with a therapist's help
Learning more about how to navigate the world (e.g. financial info, info about how to seek mental health treatment, etc.)
Revelations about the consequences of your behaviors or beliefs (e.g. realizing that you take your problems out on people, and that this behavior undermines your personal relationships)
Picking up technical information that may be useful in pursuing a behavior goal (e.g. how to use the implementation intentions strategy for forming new habits)
Strategy 2: Social Liberation
In many cases, the circumstances of daily life — the types of environment you operate in and the behaviors considered acceptable in those environments — can help or hinder efforts to change your behavior. Consider, for example, how difficult it would be to quit smoking if you spent all of your time in places where many people around you were smoking regularly. The Social Liberation strategy aims to facilitate positive behavior change by changing the social environment to make such changes easier, typically by altering the legal / regulatory frameworks that govern public behavior. In the case of smoking in the United States, Social Liberation has taken the form of indoor smoking bans and restrictions on where people can smoke outside.
Possible forms of Social Liberation:
Top-down public health policy interventions (e.g. smoking ban laws)
Efforts to change social mores (e.g. increasing the social acceptance of trans people)
Specifically choosing environments that support a behavior change (e.g. avoiding bars)
Relocating to a region with more compatible values (e.g. moving to a city where homosexuality is more accepted)
Strategy 3: Emotional Arousal
The Emotional Arousal strategy is a cousin to the Consciousness-Raising it. Instead of working by providing useful information, it aims to aid behavior change by creating emotional momentum in the direction of the desired new behavior. Typically, this strategy works by evoking a strong emotional experience related to the problem at hand. One very common method for producing this effect is through media — "scared straight" instructional programs that dramatize the negative consequences of certain behaviors are a typical example. (Though this specific Emotional Arousal tactic has been known to backfire and produce more drug usage among kids.) This strategy can take less contrived forms, too; real-life personal experiences can emotionally highlight the need to change your behavior more effectively than virtually anything else.
Possible forms of Emotional Arousal:
Therapeutic role play
Grieving (e.g. allowing yourself to feel the full pain of the loss of a loved one and to express the emotion you feel")
An intense emotional experience that motivates change (e.g. losing a friendship over a past behavior)
Strategy 4: Self-Reevaluation
Sometimes the key to changing your behavior is to consider what kind of person your current behavior makes you, what kind of person you'd like to be, and how adopting new behaviors might help you achieve that goal. This process of frank emotional reflection on your current state and how it differs from your preferences is the crux of the Self-Reevaluation strategy. As Changing For Good puts it, this process often entails asking yourself a series of difficult questions: "How do you perceive yourself as a gambler, a drinker, or a sedentary person? How do you see yourself if you change your behavior? What will be the cost of that change, in time, energy, pleasure, stress, or image? What, overall, are the pros and cons of trying to overcome your problem?"
Possible forms of Self-Reevaluation:
Value clarification (e.g. putting your priorities in a new order)
Future visualization (e.g. "what will I be like after I make this change?")
Pros vs. cons analysis
Strategy 5: Commitment
Ultimately, only you can change your own behavior. This fact can make behavior change attempts seem daunting, but it also creates an opening that can actually help you push yourself to reshape your ways. The Commitment strategy involves announcing your intentions to the public or to members of your social circle. By doing so, you commit your social credibility to achieving your goal — thereby creating a powerful incentive to follow through and avoid the shame of public failure. New Year's Resolutions are a common Commitment strategy example.
Possible forms of Commitment:
Publicly tracking behavior change performance (e.g. social fitness apps)
Frequently discussing behavior change efforts with friends / colleagues
Strategy 6: Countering
The Countering strategy works on a very simple premise: when the urge to engage in an unhealthy behavior strikes, sub in a healthier behavior instead. Countering strategies are popular among dieters — think of tactically opting for a healthy fruit snack when a potato chip craving strikes. Another famous example: smokers often try to aid their efforts to quit by popping a mint or a piece of gum whenever they find themselves longing for a cigarette.
Possible forms of Countering:
Substitution (as described above)
Strategy 7: Environment Control
The Environment Control strategy is similar to the Social Liberation strategy in that it involves altering your environment to make behavior change easier. In this case, though, the strategy focuses on changing the environments that you yourself directly control, such as your home or your workspace. The most common and obvious type of Environment Control tactic is removing unhealthy temptations — such as junk food, tobacco, alcohol, and so forth — from your home. But Environment Control tactics can take more positive forms too, such as a reminder placed in your workspace to go straight to the gym after work instead of going home.
Possible forms of Environment Control:
Avoiding high-risk environments
Removing risks from your own environment
Making your environment more conducive to new behavior
Equipping your environment with supplies for a new behavior
Strategy 8: Rewards
This strategy is one of the most simple and intuitive of the bunch, as well as one of the most effective. Rewarding good behavior is a time-tested method for supporting efforts to change habits. Commonplace examples abound, such as rewarding oneself with a dessert after hitting a dieting goal, or enticing yourself to exercise by limiting your TV-watching time to when you're on an exercise bike.
Possible forms of Rewards:
Reward for achieving a milestone
Reward for beginning individual instances of behavior practices
Self-praise for adherence to a new behavior
Strategy 9: Helping Relationships
As mentioned, the success or failure of any behavior change effort you undertake will ultimately fall to you. But while you can't control the behavior of your friends and family members, they can be an invaluable source of assistance. If let your close confidants in on your efforts, you'll do more than up the ante by putting your credibility into play a la the Commitment strategy. You'll also be able to ask them for logistical help (e.g. buying groceries that match a new diet) or moral support, in the form of encouragement or compassion.
Are you looking to change your own behavior?
Consider trying out combinations of these 9 strategies and seeing which ones work best for you. Or, better yet, contact a licensed practitioner (such as a cognitive-behavioral therapist) to help you sift through these strategies and come up with the combination best suited to helping you change your ways.
We also have a full podcast episode about Self-Improvement and Behavior Change that you may like:
Click here to access other streaming options and show notes.