Why do we choose the behaviours we do?

Why we do what we do: A new behaviour change model

Have you ever attempted to make a permanent change in your own behaviour, or someone else’s? The way our behaviour evolves shapes not only our lives, but also our teams and cultures. But what factors contribute to successfully creating lasting behaviour change? I’ve been exploring this question for over a decade, and my findings reveal that most of the existing behaviour change models are inconsistent with how our brains actually work. In light of this, neuroscience points us in a different direction, and in this article, I will outline the foundation of a new behaviour change model.

To begin with, we must understand the reasons behind our behaviour – whether it’s a new behaviour or an old one. In my view, three essential conditions must be met for any behaviour to be carried out.

The three prerequisites of behaviour

  • Opportunity: There must be a genuine chance for the behaviour to occur, and the individual must recognize it as such.
  • Activation: The neural circuits associated with the behaviour must become activated. For new behaviours, this involves conscious thought, whereas established habits can be activated with little conscious attention.
  • Preference: When the neural circuits for only one behaviour are significantly activated, little mental consideration is needed, and we simply perform the behaviour. This is true for habits and reactive responses – in familiar contexts, our brains execute the usual routine easily. However, for new behaviours, multiple behaviours may be activated – both the usual routine and the new one. To choose the new behaviour, we must give it preference.

When we engage in behaviours, these three prerequisites are typically met. Therefore, if we wish to adopt a new behaviour, we can consider how to ensure that that we meet them. Conversely, to discontinue a behaviour, we can think of ways to prevent meeting these requirements. Essentially, these three prerequisites serve as the foundation for a new behaviour change model grounded in neuroscience. Let’s take a closer look at each prerequisite now.


To practice your tennis serve, you require access to a court, a racket, and a tennis ball. Without these, you lack the opportunity to engage in the desired behaviour. However, many behaviours do not require equipment, and so we often assume that people have the opportunity. This overlooks one of the most critical resources – time. Most of us have more tasks than we can accomplish in a day.

We often prioritize what appears to be the most critical and disregard the rest. This presents a challenge for behaviours we want to adopt that only become important if done repeatedly over an extended period, such as brushing your teeth. No single instance of the behaviour is especially significant. Therefore, we often fill each opportunity with other essential tasks and never engage in the behaviour.

What’s the solution? We need to plan and create opportunities for the desired behaviour. However, with such busy lives, how can we achieve this?

Mental tethering

One way is to incorporate the desired behaviour into activities we already do regularly. This way, we’re not trying to change what we do as much as how we do it. Moreover, by mentally tethering the new behaviour to existing routines, we can consciously recognize opportunities to engage in it. For instance, we might practice mindfulness while washing the dishes or walking up a set of steps regularly.

Drop a less important behaviour

However, incorporating a new behaviour into an existing routine may not work for certain behaviours. For those, we may need to re-evaluate other activities to identify one that we’re willing to shorten or even replace. The more familiar we are with our values, the easier this process becomes. For these types of behaviours, ask yourself this key question: ‘What am I willing to sacrifice, if anything, to create an opportunity for this new behaviour?

Many behaviours add less and less value as their duration increases. Meetings, for example, can often become unproductive after a certain point. Therefore, it may be worth sacrificing just the first three minutes of a meeting to foster positive emotions through appreciation. The benefits of greater creativity, trust, and communication can be worth much more than three minutes. In an organisational setting, it’s important to communicate that sacrificing a little bit of something to make room for a new behaviour can ultimately lead to greater value for the organisation.

Schedule opportunity

Don’t just rely on your memory to remind you of the new behaviour. Instead, create cues and reminders to help you remember. For example, you could place a note above the sink to remind you to practice mindfulness while washing dishes, or schedule the behaviour into your calendar or meeting agendas. You can also mentally label a particular action or object as a reminder. For instance, you could label a set of steps as “the mindful steps” or the meeting room table as the “Maioha” table, which is a Maori word meaning “to greet affectionately, welcome, appreciate”. These labels can serve as reminders of the opportunity to engage in the new behaviour and help to stabilize it over time.


Unless the neural circuitry associated with a new behaviour is activated, we cannot choose to do it. Without the activation of these circuits alongside the normally activated ones, the behaviour is not an available option. This means that to establish a new behaviour, its neural circuitry must be repeatedly stimulated right when we might engage in it.

Unless the neural circuitry associated with a new behaviour is activated, we cannot choose to do it.

This is another critical point where many organisational and personal behaviour change attempts fail. Often, people rely solely on the individual’s memory to enact the behaviour, which is not sufficient. To avoid this mistake, consider these alternatives:


If you’re not unusually conscientious, it’s likely that you’ll need some cues to remind yourself of the behaviour you want to adopt. Therefore, it’s essential to set up reliable reminders. Here are some options to consider:

  • Visual reminders: These can be anything from post-it notes to posters, signs, or visual cues in the environment that trigger the desired behaviour. For example, if you want people to recycle more, you could place recycling bins in visible locations with clear signage.
  • Written reminders: These can be prompts or reminders in key documents, such as meeting agendas, task lists, or project plans. They could also be in the form of emails or newsletters that reinforce the importance of the desired behaviour.
  • Spoken reminders: These can be reminders given by leaders or supervisors during meetings, check-ins, or one-on-one conversations. They could also be reminders given by colleagues or peers who are supporting each other in the behaviour change.

Overall, the key is to find reminders that are reliable and consistent, and that will prompt people at the right time and place to engage in the desired behaviour.

Implementation intentions

One way to create mental cues is by using “implementation intentions” introduced by Peter Gollwitzer. These are “if-then” plans that help us create opportunities for the desired behaviour. For example, “If I am washing the dishes, then I’ll practice mindfulness” or “If I chair a meeting, then I’ll start with appreciation.” By associating the behaviour with specific situations in advance, it helps us remember to engage in that behaviour when the situation arises.


To complete the prerequisites for behaviour change, we must prefer the desired behaviour over any activated alternatives. This involves our brain weighing up the costs and benefits of the behaviour and comparing it to other options. Resonant brain activity in areas like the basal ganglia and prefrontal cortex are involved in this decision-making process. Surprisingly, studies such as this one and this one have found that the brain reaches a decision before we even realize it.

Costs and benefits

The costs and benefits of a behaviour are dependent on the context. Specifically, they depend on which costs and benefits are currently active. If the neural circuits for a particular cost or benefit aren’t activated (i.e., if we’re not thinking about it), it won’t influence our decision-making process.

Secondly, our brains modify the costs and benefits based on how distant they are in time or space. The further away a cost or benefit is in time, the less value it has to us right now. This psychological process is known as temporal discounting, and a similar process occurs with spatial discounting.


Studying (or not) for an exam

empty, exam, hall-314554.jpg

As the exam date approaches, the benefits of doing well on it become less valuable in our minds. We might then compare that value to another behaviour that competes with it, such as socializing with friends, which provides more immediate and vivid benefits that are not discounted. Although we may rationally know that doing well on the exam is more important than spending more time socializing, the brain still prioritizes the immediate benefits of socializing over the discounted benefits of studying for the exam. This is why we end up choosing to socialize instead of studying, even though it may not be the best decision in the long run.

As we approach the exam, the way our brain evaluates the benefits and costs of different behaviours changes. Two days before the exam, the costs of failing the exam start to loom large in our minds. We start to think about social embarrassment, financial consequences, and the prospect of explaining our failure to our parents. These costs become more salient than the benefits of socializing. The prospect of avoiding these costs becomes a more powerful motivator for us to study.

The most effective change agents understand the role of preferences in shaping behaviour. They take steps to influence future preferences, even when they are trying to change their own behaviour.

For instance, people who want to cut down on sugary drinks can succeed by making an if-then decision to avoid the aisle in the supermarket where these drinks are located. It’s relatively easy to follow through in the supermarket. The option of drinking them later is temporally discounted, and the choice has an immediate benefit of feeling good about following through. Later, not having these drinks at home increases the in-the-moment costs of drinking them, since it would involve an extra supermarket trip. So, the easiest choice then becomes not to drink them.

Once a behaviour becomes a routine, the way our brain handles the preference calculation changes. It simply asks, “Is this the same situation?” If the situation is the same, it assumes that our preference will be the same. It can initiate the behaviour without requiring much attention. We don’t usually think about our preferences for habitual behaviours once they become automatic. We do think about them when we are forming those habits.

Changes over time

Each time we engage in a new behaviour, the brain processes it and changes occur. The experience can help our brain recognize opportunities more easily, activate the behaviour more quickly in similar situations, or adjust the expected costs and benefits. For instance, we may enjoy or dislike the behaviour more than we initially anticipated. With practice, a behaviour can become easier, reducing its costs, or we may become accustomed to the benefits it brings, reducing its perceived benefits. Our brain may associate the behaviour with specific and regular cues. These changes can make it more or less likely that we will repeat the behaviour in the future.

Change happens – always

People often worry whether they’ll be able to ‘make change’. We needn’t. New behaviours will always produce neural changes. It’s the nature of those changes that determine whether new behaviours stick. Successful behaviour change requires skilfully shaping the opportunity, mental activation, and preference for the behaviour over time.

What about willpower?

The brain naturally drives us towards behaviours that it deems most adaptive to its environment. Therefore, for long-term change to occur, we must change that environment. Those who are successful in changing behaviour take steps to modify their surroundings so that they do not have to rely on willpower over time. As I learned from Roy Baumeister, the most effective individuals with willpower find ways to minimize their reliance on it. Choosing not to walk down the sugary drinks aisle and not taking those drinks home are two examples.

However, many meaningful behaviours require significant effort in the beginning before becoming a habit. Willpower can be helpful and necessary during this initial stage to support the desired behaviour as its costs decrease with practice. It is crucial to keep in mind that willpower has limitations and is not infinite. For long-lasting change, the costs and benefits of the desired behaviour must shift, so it becomes more appealing than competing behaviours. Otherwise, the brain’s natural motivation to maximize benefits and minimize costs will eventually take over.

For long-lasting change, the costs and benefits of the desired behaviour must shift, so it becomes more appealing than competing behaviours.

In organisations, some leaders mistakenly believe that willpower will sustain the desired behaviour indefinitely. They do not shape the environment to encourage the behaviours they want to see more of and instead rely on people to comply simply because they were asked. When team members inevitably fail to maintain the change, these leaders tend to blame them without taking responsibility for the environment they created. Great leaders are mindful of the environment they help create and intentionally shape it to encourage the desired behaviour because they understand its power.

What’s next?

How lasting behavioural changes happen was the central research question of my PhD, and I have spent over a decade studying it since then. I have looked at all the existing behaviour change models and view these ideas as key foundational principles for understanding why behaviour changes and why it doesn’t, with broad applications for both personal and organisational change. However, one key principle remains before we can arrive at a full new behaviour change model: synergy. I’ve dedicated this next article to explaining it.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas. Do they resonate with your experience? What stood out to you? Are there any other ideas that complement these? Please share your comments and suggestions with me!

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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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