Ant colonies highlight the key to create successful behaviour change.

Synergy – The key to successful behaviour change

What is the key to creating successful behaviour change? I argue here that it is synergy, and this article explains it.

It builds on my previous one on why we do what we do. In short, I argued that in order to enact a new behaviour, we must have the opportunity to perform it, activate the neural circuits associated with it in the moment, and prefer it over other considered options. These concepts provide a solid foundation for understanding why we engage in behaviours at any given moment. However, to comprehensively comprehend how and why new behaviours are either retained or abandoned over time, we must shift our focus to a completely different paradigm.

Existing models of behaviour change

For over a century, academics and researchers have been attempting to understand the mechanisms of successful behaviour change. During my PhD, I developed the illustration presented below, which provides a visual history of several prominent change models found in the literature. Such models have become increasingly intricate over time, with each subsequent iteration including more influences than its predecessor. Today, these models are widely used, especially in the field of public health.

Many other models of behaviour change exist, including the COM-B model, the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), Social-Cognitive Theory, the Health Belief Model, the Individual, Social and Material (ISM) approach, and the Health Action Process Approach (HAPA). These models outline many different influences on behaviour.

The problem with most existing models is that they fall short of explaining successful behaviour change. Instead, existing models generally outline the what influences the intention to change behaviour, and intention doesn’t influence behaviour nearly as much as one might assume. This is particularly true over longer periods of time. This ‘intention-behaviour gap’ has puzzled researchers and practitioners in fields like psychology and public health for decades. Something else is at play. So what is it?

Behaviour colonies

Previous behaviour change models have considered single behaviours in isolation, yet behaviours never exist in isolation. I believe that trajectories of behavioural changes can be understood better by thinking about colonies of behaviours. Let me explain.

Ant colonies and behaviours

Ants are fascinating creatures. They can carry objects many times their own weight, form massive colonies, and work together to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. But if we really want to understand these tiny creatures, we can’t just study one ant in isolation. Sure, we can learn about their anatomy, how they move, what they can sense, and how strong they are. But to truly understand why a given ant thrives or dies, we need to study colonies of ants.

Ants rely on each other. Their behaviour is influenced by the behaviour of other ants, and their behaviour in turn affects other ants. It’s a dynamic, adaptive system that emerges from thousands of relatively simple interactions. Only by studying this complex and dynamic system can we fully comprehend the lives of these tiny but remarkable creatures.

In other words, when it comes to ants:

  • Ants interact
  • The behaviour of an ant depends on what other ants are doing
  • Ants depend on each other to survive
  • Ant behaviour only makes sense when we look at the whole system – the ant colony.

Behaviours are like ants, they don’t exist in isolation. They interact with one another and thrive in colonies. When separated from their colony, ants have only one-tenth of a normal lifespan. Just like ants, behaviours do not survive on their own for long. Their longevity is affected by other behaviours enacted by the same person or by others.

Just like ants, behaviours do not survive on their own for long.

Synergy between behaviours

Have you ever noticed that one behaviour can influence how often we do another? This phenomenon is called “spillover,” and it happens when a behaviour makes another related behaviour more or less likely to occur. Spillover changes the opportunity, activation, or preference for engaging in other behaviours.

For example, if you tend to spend a lot of time in front of the TV, you might find yourself reaching for unhealthy junk food as a snack. On the other hand, if you start to exercise more regularly, you may become more inclined to eat a healthier diet as well. The key is that behaviours can create a ripple effect, impacting other behaviours and contributing to larger changes.

Mutual reinforcement

Sometimes, behaviours can mutually reinforce each other. For instance, brushing your teeth reinforces the behaviour of buying toothbrushes, and you are more likely to brush your teeth if you have a toothbrush. I refer to this idea of behaviours reinforcing each other as synergy. To illustrate synergy, we can use dots to represent behaviours, with the closer dots indicating a higher degree of synergy.

Self-sustaining ecosystems

In the world of behaviours, I believe that synergy is key. In the complex network of behaviours that exists for any individual, many behaviours depend on one another for survival. These interconnected behaviours can form colonies that collectively reinforce each other, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that lasts over time. Without synergy, behaviours tend to become less likely to be enacted, which ultimately leads to their extinction.

We can better understand the evolution of behaviour over time by considering the prerequisites of behaviours and how they interact. By looking at the presence or absence of synergies, we can explain and predict whether a behaviour will endure or disappear. When I taught this set of ideas in a Masters of Applied Psychology course at the University of Melbourne, I named it the Synergistic Behavioural Framework. This framework emphasizes the importance of identifying synergies between behaviours to create self-sustaining colonies of actions that can endure over time.

The pathway to successful behaviour change

As individuals, we each have complex collections of behaviours that we enact in specific situations. To understand why we decide to introduce or stop certain behaviours, the existing models of behaviour change are useful. From that starting point, synergies between our behaviours shape their development over time.

Supporting new behaviours

Introducing a new behaviour without finding ways to connect it to our existing stable behaviours may lead to a short-lived change. Without synergy, new behaviours will die. Competing pressures and the passage of time will tend to erode the prerequisites that support the new behaviour, ultimately overcoming our initial enthusiasm for change. So, it’s crucial to identify and cultivate synergies between our behaviours to ensure lasting and meaningful change.

Creating new habits is all about creating synergies. That’s the smart way to spend your effort when developing a new habit. By connecting your new behaviour with existing enjoyable habits, you can create a synergy that will give your new habit a better chance of sticking.

Think of it this way. Your new habit is like a baby taking its first steps. It needs guidance and support to grow strong. At first, it may not feel natural. But if you surround it with supportive habits, you’ll find it seems to fit more and more.

So, what might this look like in practice? Let’s say you want to start practicing mindfulness every morning. You can make it easier by connecting it with an existing habit, like making coffee. Instead of scrolling through your phone while waiting for the coffee to brew, use that time to practice mindfulness. Be mindful of the coffee aroma and even drink it mindfully. Connecting the new behaviour with a current habit and something you enjoy is a way to support that new behaviour.

Scaffolding subsequent behaviours

To help new behaviours stick, we need to build on existing ones. It’s like a ladder: We start from where we are and work our way up. We don’t try to jump straight to the top rung. New behaviours can serve as stepping stones to support the development of subsequent behaviours. This process is known as ‘scaffolding’ and it helps us expand our range of behaviours. These new behaviours act as gateways and provide the support necessary to establish future behaviours.

To help new behaviours stick, we need to build on existing ones.

Consider how you developed your set of behaviours around one of your major hobbies or interests, like playing a musical instrument. At the beginning of your musical journey, your behaviours were very different from those of a seasoned professional musician. Naturally, you wouldn’t want to perform a live show when you could hardly play two notes in a row. This same principle applies to cognitive and social practices too – they often start from humble beginnings and require gradual growth over time.

Creating sustainable changes often requires taking small steps that are adjacent to our current reality. These small changes can synergize with existing behaviours that are already being sustained, making them more likely to stick. Conversely, change attempts that fail often try to start completely new behaviours that are too far away from our current behaviours, making them difficult to maintain in the long run.

Build on strengths

As individuals or as leaders, it’s essential to create synergies between our desired new behaviours and what is already working. By identifying the behaviours that are already being sustained and finding ways to connect them with our desired new behaviours, we can create an ecosystem of sustainable change. Building on our strengths is a great place to start, because they are often sources of energy that can energise many connected behaviours. This can help to steadily progress toward desired behavioural outcomes that are more likely to be sustained over time.

Using appreciative Inquiry

Organisations that are looking to create successful behaviour change may want a structured approach to design synergy into change initiatives. One approach that has been pioneered by David Cooperrider is known as Appreciative Inquiry. This approach involves starting with behaviours that are already working well within an organisation. They are exactly the behaviours that can form synergies to sustain desirable new behaviours, so building on them is a great strategy. This is one reason why this process is often effective at creating change.

The five steps

To better understand the Appreciative Inquiry process, here’s an overview of the basic “5D” model that can help to create synergies:

  1. Define – Identify the topic of inquiry. Focus attention toward what we ultimately want more of – a unifying vision to work toward.
  2. Discover – Appreciate the best current behaviours. Identify key behaviours that are already working well within the organisation. These behaviours are critical to creating synergies with new behaviours.
  3. Dream – Imagine possible new behaviours. As a team, brainstorm new behaviours that you would like to see implemented in the organisation.
  4. Design – Plan the new behaviours to initiate. Select and adapt “next-step” behaviours to fit and synergise with what is already working well. Identify what structures, processes, or policies could be put in place to help those new behaviours to have opportunity, attention, and preference in the moment.
  5. Destiny – Ongoing implementation and improvement. Start to implement the new behaviours, with the intention to develop them. Focus on creating the right conditions for their development, like psychological safety, structural freedom, and cultural expectations to try new ideas.

An ongoing process for improvement

The appreciative inquiry approach is not just a one-time practical process but an ongoing approach that can foster the emergence of stable and transformative behaviours. It is often seen as a continuous process that capitalizes on what we learn. For example, leaders might use it annually by embedding it into annual review paperwork.

Using this approach on an ongoing basis can be highly beneficial in promoting successful behaviour change. It enables behaviours that are already working well to fuel new ones. Once new behaviours start working well, they fuel further growth, and so on. This ongoing process can help nurture a culture of positive change and continuous improvement within an organisation, leading to better outcomes and greater success.

What do you think about these ideas? Do they align with your experiences? What stood out to you, and do you have any additional ideas about successful behaviour change that could complement them? I would appreciate it if you could leave your comments and suggestions below.

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Drawing on over a decade of research into the science of how individuals, leaders, and teams work best, Reuben is a trusted advisor and partner for navigating complex challenges. His articles distil complex ideas and present practical insights, so you don't have to do the research yourself. With an authentic approach and genuine empathy for his clients, Reuben is a valuable asset to any organisation.

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