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How Do We Change Behavior?

written by Scott Asalone 11 July 2011

Scott Asalone, MAPP '08, is an author, speaker and entrepreneur. He is a partner and co-Founder of ASGMC, Inc. and works both nationally and internationally specializing in identifying and unleashing the best in people and organizations. His blog is called The Greatness Project. Full bio.

Scott's articles are here.

During a recent course that I taught with my business partner Jan Sparrow, an executive turned to us to say, “All this stuff is great and I want to change my behavior, but how do I make sure it sticks long term?”

This is an important question for positive psychology practitioners, whether as professional therapists, life coaches, and consultants or as individuals wanting to implement personal positive behavioral changes. It is not easily answered. Recently in studying long-term, positive behavioral change I came across an article by Brendan I. Koerner about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Reading the article I realized there is much that AA can teach all of us about long-term change even in the face of addiction. Though they admit their failure rate is very high they still have created an astounding record of behavioral change. Let’s explore four of the elements of AA as an opening for a dialogue about creating long-term positive behavioral change.

  1. Gain commitment.

    Commitment is the key element for AA to have any chance of succeeding and most likely individuals who attend a meeting are present because they intend to try to change. Perhaps the same can be said of those who engage life coaches, or therapists. They do so believing they will create long-term positive behavioral change.

    The situation rapidly deteriorates in many corporate settings where “classes” of employees are gathered to learn about a topic. The “prisoners” as we call them, can range anywhere from 10 – 90% of a class. (Yes, we do take a poll). From the corporate perspective we’ve tried a few strategies to gain commitment. First we get the prisoners to acknowledge their imprisonment. Talking about the elephant in the room always helps. Also, each participant creates and signs a contract on the action plan they agree to.

    Supported learning

    What do you do to encourage and insure commitment?
  2. Build self-efficacy. AA gives members constant support to continue their change. In each meeting they get to hear from others who were in their situation and choose sobriety.
    In assisting behavioral change in corporate settings we use Bandura’s strategies. We highlight links to past accomplishments, provide mentors or role models, offer verbal persuasion and engage them to the point where they believe they can continue their behavioral change.

    What do you do to build or help build self-efficacy?

  3. Form groups or relationships. One of the keys behind long-term positive behavioral change is the power of the group. Whether through accountability or support, individuals are more likely to continue change within a supportive context. The meetings provide this opportunity in AA.
    In corporate settings, even in large group meetings, we have people create triads or partnerships and ask that they check in with each other on a regular basis.

    How do you create a support group?

  4. Instill new habits. One of the most difficult parts of change is that we tend to revert to what we’ve always done. As my business partner says, “The familiar is seductive.” Changing habits is the toughest part of long-term behavioral change. AA recommends 90 consecutive days of meetings when you first join them. Part of the reason for this recommendation is that AA is structured to be every bit as habit forming as alcohol.
    We’ve also initiated a 90 day process where, after workshops, we ask our participants to work on their behavioral change for 90 days. We check in at 30, 60 and 90 days. One of our most popular workshops on connecting emotionally with clients has increased productivity in financial advisors minimally 17% compared to the control group if they continue with it at least 90 days.
    What are you doing to instill the new habits?

Long-term positive behavioral change is a goal that many individuals desire. Those of us who build on positive psychology hope to identify, explore, and disseminate what changes people’s lives for the better. AA’s strategies of commitment, confidence, community, and consistency can assist in creating long-term positive behavioral change. What are your strategies?

Ashford, S.A., Edmunds, J. and French, O.P. (2010) What is the best way to change self-efficacy to promote lifestyle and recreational physical activity? A systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Health Psychology. 15(2) 265-288.

Kelly, J.F., Magill, M. and Stout, R.L. (2009). How do people recover from alcohol dependence? A systematic review of the research oon mechanisms of behavior change in Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction Research and Theory. 17(3), 236-259.

Koerner, B.I., (2010). The Secret of AA: After 75 years, we don’t know how it works. Wired. 18(7).

Vaillant, G. (2001). Interview: A Doctor Speaks. First printed in AA Grapevine Magazine, 57(12).

Commitment courtesy of Ed Schipul
Supported learning courtesy of Photochiel
3d people partner courtesy of ????

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Marie-Josee Shaar 11 July 2011 - 9:40 am

I think the most difficult part is to find true commitment. Wanting to change a poor habit for a better one is easy in theory, but when confronted with letting go of whatever advantage the poor habit afforded you (which is the whole reason why you developed that poor habit in the first place), it gets much more difficult.

For example, an alcoholic can find the idea of being sober very seductive. But when an obstacle arises and the best way they’ve learnt to “cope” with it is alcohol, their commitment is tested.

I like your idea of signing a plan, and I think it can definitely help. I also think that including a part for “what to do when your commitment will be tested” in it is very important. So in the example above, if the AA not only has a plan for how to stay away from alcohol in general, but also has a plan for how to cope in the face of obstacles (other than through alcohol), the odds of wavering are decreased. This may mean going to a supportive friend’s place (taping in your #3 here), going for a run, or turning to music (lots of musicians find it therapeutic).

Would love to hear other suggestions on this!

Sherri Fisher 11 July 2011 - 12:47 pm

Hi, Scott-
I think another way to help someone change is to see how the undesirable behavior is perhaps the dark side of a character strength or gives the person something they really want, too. People are more engaged when using their strengths, but this does not mean that they are using their powers for good.

Maybe you have the VIA strengths “perpsective” “forgiveness” and “optimism”. Instead of making plans and following through, you hope for the best and when things don’t go well you chalk it up to a small blip in the journey of life, and forgive yourself. AND…YOU DON’T CHANGE the behavior that kept you from getting what you wanted. That would be a key to moving forward. Where do those same strengths engage you in getting what you want? This appreciative approach can help clients feel a real connection to why they have been stuck, and why those patterns are so appealing.

Strengths are like breathing. Practice “breathwork”–know your strengths.

wayne 11 July 2011 - 3:43 pm

Scott, many years ago a mentor suggested that “behind every behaviour is a positive intent”. In order to change the behaviour its useful to understand the positive intent. The discussion around the positive intent is always useful and leads to insights about future desired behaviour.

Jeremy McCarthy 11 July 2011 - 4:28 pm

This is a great and very useful/applicable article. I also liked Marie-Josee’s comments about commitment. I agree that commitment is a key part of this. We tend to talk a lot in PP about self-regulation/willpower and grit. But these are all byproducts of having a strong sense of commitment towards something.

I like the old joke about the difference between “involvement” and “committment”–If you’re having bacon and eggs for breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

Scott 11 July 2011 - 6:27 pm

Marie Josee,
Commitment is the key. Preparing for this article I really tried to find good ways to help people increase and mean their commitment. Some of the strategies offered below may help, but I really believe this is the key. Why are some people truely committed from day one and others struggle? And what is true commitment? These are some of the most important questions we face.

Scott 11 July 2011 - 6:33 pm

I like your idea of utilizing strengths as a way to create a positive focus. Most of the research I found around motivation was about moving out of a bad situation. Very little focused on moving toward a good situation or expanding your strengths. How do we motivate people to do that? Seems easier to motivate myself based on what’s wrong. Isn’t that only a small portion of positive psychology? I like the idea of strengths. Thank you.

Scott 11 July 2011 - 6:34 pm

Interesting insight on “positive intent.” I like it and I think I, and our readers, might like a further explanation of it. How do you explore it? Thanks for the insight Wayne.

Scott 11 July 2011 - 6:41 pm

I agree that commitment is the key (and love your joke). How do we help people initiate, guage, pursue, and complete their initial commitment? That is the key to what we all hope to do. I work with many people who commit to personal greatness only to fall off track somewhere along the line. What I’m trying to discover is the key to long-term change. I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered.

arik 11 July 2011 - 8:12 pm

Scott, I really enjoyed your article and the comment thread.

The issue raised by you about CHANGE is surely the critical issue in psychology. What works & inparticular what interventions work.

I agree that unpacking the duality in a habit is vital and unpacking the strengths within it. Apart from its habitual nature, there must be something within the habit we enjoy and grasp to.

In budhism they something like – we create our habits and then our habits create us – we are really only just a bunch of habits.

If we created the habit surely we can transform it. By being part of the transformation then we have ownership and part us is part of the change. Due to the standardised approach to AA I query the individuals ownership component. But the overall approach has the runs on the board as a model to base on.

What do you think?

Jeremy McCarthy 11 July 2011 - 9:34 pm

Hi Scott, Those are questions we all wrestle with. As your article implies, it is difficult to change others. Only they can change themselves. I always say that it’s easy to get what you want, it’s hard to know what you want. So I think the key to long-term change is helping people to focus on their values so they know what is most important to them and can work towards the things they want more of.

Belinda 12 July 2011 - 4:35 am

Hi Scott,
It was useful to read such a clear pathway you’ve identified. I am currently working on my MAPP project to change student behaviours to energy consumption, via PP interventions,but i wont have access to them in the way one would have with clients. And, as you know, i won’t be able to tell them what they are involved in as such as it will be a control test….. So i am looking at ways you have noted, but exploring how to manage this in a hands off way- a bit like an ehealth project i am also working on with my colleague at Agency For Life.

My main challenge with the e health project has been, how to establish the relationship with people, so essential to initiate consideration and commitment stage. Once people are ‘sold’ on change, then i can progress onto stage 2, at which point i also work with Bandura’s strategies and past accomplishments as well as acceptance and forgiveness. However, developing social strategies is challenging here, as ehealth clients can only ‘chat’, and this is not built into the project yet.

I think the most successful strategy which has created ‘stickiness’ so far, has been creating highly personalised interventions and encouraging ehealthers to continue by offering them congratulations- at each step- which you write about as supported learning and checking in.

I fully support your view that connecting emotionally assists change, as i also have found that when other groups participate in exploring their emotions, they appear to invest more emotional energy into pursuing their goals. Unfortunately i cant do this with e health as i can’t contain any challenging or distressing emotional responses and thus feel its unethical to delve too far…This is a similar challenge i have with my MAPP project, where i wont be there to work things through.

Any ideas would be most welcome!

Lisa Sansom 12 July 2011 - 10:28 am

For me, there is also a big issue around goals-conflict – when you really want to commit to two goals and you can’t possibly do both. For example, wanting to spend more time with your family means spending less time at work, where you also want to make a positive impact and so on… We can, of course, occasionally get creative (spend more time with your family AND get more physical activity by doing all-family sports and the like), but sometimes, we say we are committed to Goal A without realizing that we are also committed to Goal B, and they are in conflict.

Scott Asalone 12 July 2011 - 10:36 am

The concept that we are a bunch of habits is interesting. Essentially we are a “tabala rasa” (blank slate) when we are born so they possibly would assert that we create the habits we eventually embody. Changing those habits is critical to moving to new, positive behavior. Personally I find changing habits difficult and I’m searching for ways to more easily move to positive behaviors. But your ideas around habits are a good beginning.

Scott Asalone 12 July 2011 - 10:41 am

I totally agree that each of us is in charge of changing ourselves. And, if we have the strategies that make that easier, we can share the strategies with those who want to change. I like the idea about helping people focus on their values, yet still it is difficult for people to move in that direction, as I find in my own life. If you have ways to make it easier I’d love to hear them.

Scott Asalone 12 July 2011 - 10:51 am

You are spot on. Robert Frost put it best in “The Road Not Taken” when he realizes that by choosing one path we necessarily leave behind the other. And on top of that we live in a society that says we can have it all. Not really.
Recently I facilitated a three day workshop on change with a Harvard professor. He addressed this same idea of conflict as “choice points.” He said that it is at those moments of choice we are conflicted with which value we hold higher and it is the idea that we can have it all that stops us from moving forward on any specific value. Perhaps we need to get the notion of having it all, or “balance” out of our head. I suggest that there is never balance (which is a perfect formula of equal parts) but only imbalance. The question that remains: is our imbalance chosen by us or chosen for us?

Senia 12 July 2011 - 3:08 pm


Great article.

I like your taking the poll of “prisoners” in the room. Margaret has told me that before a corporate change workshop, she will ask to have a brief interview with the biggest critics and naysayers – because life is not all rah-rah, and their views are important to evaluating and creating change.

And I’m a big fan of your 30, 60, 90 day follow-ups.


Scott Asalone 12 July 2011 - 3:53 pm

Your capstone sounds fascinating and I’m glad you found my framework helpful. Their might be other readers who can also offer you some guidance especially with an audience who are not present. Just a few ideas. On getting them “sold” on change. Positive visions of the future that are more emotional work much better than facts, especially negative facts that are based on fear. So for the “sales” part, try to engage them in a true story of where you are going that engages the emotions. Also, keeping them involved along the way is important. Your strategy is sound (personalized interventions with congratulations at the end). The research on Flow, especially around on-line gaming is pretty strong on the stickiness factor.
Continued success on your capstone. Glad to be a part of your thought process.

Scott Asalone 12 July 2011 - 4:00 pm

Glad you enjoyed the article. The 30-60-90 day follow up was initiated by one of our clients and it worked so well, we’ve adopted it. As for dealing with the critics, acknowledging them as “prisioners” works because it acknowledges reality and they remain quieter. Dealing with them in change initiatives I will do only for so long. There is a percentage of any population who are “laggards” and will only come to change kicking and screaming. If I realize I’m dealing with them, I spend a little time and then turn to the innovators, early adopters and middle adopters where I spend the majority of my time.

wayne 12 July 2011 - 4:15 pm


I have been trialing a group micro meditation training (Zenergy) on line. Although initially sceptical, I have been surprised how effective it has been.

The physiological data shows that about 90% of clients have mastered the technique and about 70% are still using the techniques on a daily basis 60 days after the concluson of the training.

The key reason for the success is time. Most people don’t meditate because it takes too much time and they can’t fit it around their schedules. The technique we teach takes only 5 minutes and can be used whenever you have a spare 5 minutes. Interstingly about 30% are meditating much longer – around 60 minutes per day.

So the take home message for me is if the new behaviour is too hard to sustain, then people will drop it.

This also applies to some key dietary changes that I have made as a consequence of a cancer scare. I have tried to make the chnages in th past but to no avail mainly because of the time involved in eating properly. This time I did the research and found some quick approaches to doing the right thing – and touch wood it seems to be working.

Scott Asalone 12 July 2011 - 6:03 pm

Important insight. If we think the behavior is too hard to sustain, we drop it. And isn’t it funny, but it is about perception. It might be a difficult challenge, but to some people, if it takes less time, as in your example, they think it’s easier to adopt. Interesting and important to consider as we ask behavioral changes of ourselves and others. Also, I hope the eating properly is working for you. Cheers.

Nick 21 July 2011 - 11:18 am

These techniques may be fine, but I don’t see why the fact that AA uses them is relevant. Indeed, since a Cochrane review seems to show that AA works no better than placebo – apparently the least ineffective treatment for alcoholism is a stiff talking-to from your doctor – I would be inclined to look for better examples of successful application.

Scott Asalone 22 July 2011 - 9:28 am

The necessity of other examples of long term positive behavioral change is important. We can study and learn from any successful example of long-term change, so we are open to any and all you can suggest. The use of AA was to create a dialogue about long term behavioral change. As for the Cochrane review, I’m not sure how you are reading their conclusions. They essentially write that there are no conclusions and more studies are necessary. Still it is important to explore diverse successful programs to learn from them. One of the key skills in strategic thinking is intellectual opportunism (learning from other examples and successes outside your discipline). So having more examples of success would help all of us. Thanks.

Shonagh MacRae 16 August 2011 - 2:41 pm

In regards to the idea of having it all.

I was reading a great relationship book (Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch) in which the author states that choosing is a process of valuing. We give value to that which we choose. In this case he was talking about monogamy. By choosing to be faithful even in challenging situations we create a marriage/partnership of value. I use this idea for all aspects of my life. For example, I choose to focus on school right now because I value it. Doing well means sacrificing in other areas of my life. I am willing to do this because of the value I have placed in school.

The technique is really just cognitive reframing away from a loss perspective towards a valuing perspective. I find it really helpful.

Scott Asalone 17 August 2011 - 10:55 am

I agree with your comment about choosing as valuing and also understanding that we have to make a choice, we can’t have it all. It helps then to either know our values and so choose, or create our values by our choices. Either way, it’s easier to choose behaviors and stick to them if they underscore our values.
My personal favorite reflection about choice is Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. Most often this is misinterpreted to focus on the road less traveled. Actually the poem is a lament that once you choose a path, you cannot go down the other. Perhaps this is the reflection we need in our world. Thanks for your thoughts.

David Ngo 1 September 2011 - 10:25 am

Successful behavior change is starting with the smallest behavior that matters.

If you can’t do 1 day, you wont’ be able to do 30. The check-ins are too far apart.

Successful behavior change = behavior design = Stanford University’s Dr. BJ Fogg


Scott 5 September 2011 - 5:36 pm

Some interesting ideas on your page. Starting with the smallest behavior that matters and doing it one day at a time is one of the successful strategies, that is assuming the behavior “that matters” shows results. People need to see that what they are doing is making a difference. Thanks for your information.


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