The Theories of Change List: Causes of Behavior Quickly Shifting in a Positive Direction

Mostly people stay the way they are, or change slowly. So what are the reasons that individual human behavior sometimes quickly shifts in a positive direction? Here’s my current “theory of change” list. It seems to me that developing a better understanding of behavior change is incredibly important for creating a better world. Some of these┬ácategories are, of course, overlapping.


Rapid small rewards: your friends respond very positively when you crack jokes, so you end up being humorous more and more often, and it makes life more fun

Question: which people in your life give you rapid rewards that make you a better person (e.g. by giving positive feedback when you behave in line with who you want to be)?

Rapid small punishments: when you are spending quality time with your mom and start distractedly checking your phone she excuses herself from the room, which makes you feel bad about having ignored her to look at your device

Question: which people in your life give you rapid punishments that make you a better person (e.g. by not tolerating your bad behavior)?



Shifting associations from negative to positive: you used to dislike exercise because you associated it with boredom and unpleasant feelings, but once you started listening to your favorite podcasts as soon as you begin to exercise you now think of it as an entertaining break

Question: what positive behaviors do you have negative associations with, and how could you make these associations more positive (e.g. for things that are difficult but rewarding)?

Shifting associations from positive to negative: you used to have really positive associations with drinking alcohol to excess, because it was something that you did with your best friends in college, but now you start to associate it with feeling out of it, reckless behavior, and hangovers

Question: what harmful behaviors do you have positive associations with (e.g. behaviors you started during a time in your life that you now look back on fondly)?

Reduction in fear: you used to avoid any opportunity that involved speaking in front of a group because it would make you terrified, but you faced this fear by enrolling in Toastmasters, and through the repeated exposure it gave you, you are now perfectly capable of public speaking even though it still makes you nervous

Question: what positive behaviors is fear preventing you from engaging in (e.g. avoiding valuable but frightening opportunities)?



Goal altering education: you used to think that to have the life you want you need to end up as a doctor, but then you learned more about other careers and realized you could be happy in some other careers as well that require many fewer years of training

Question: what assumptions that underpin your goals are worth investigating (e.g. about what a good life for you would be like)?

Newly learned conscious behavior: you used to go silent and ignore your partner when you were angry at them (on purpose because you wanted to punish them), but your therapist pointed out that a more helpful behavior would be having a discussion with your partner about what they did that angered you, and why you feel angry about it

Question: what conscious behaviors that you engage in are actually destructive (e.g. when certain types of things upset you)?



Promise of large reward: you discover that you are just four A grades away from getting honors distinctions, something that you know would be deeply meaningful to you, so you work like crazy in your final semester to get all A’s.

Question: are there large rewards out there which you might not yet have identified that would be meaningful for you to seek (e.g. related to long term achievement)?

Fear of large punishment: your doctor tells you that if you don’t start eating a healthier diet and exercising regularly you are at high risk for very serious medical problems

Question: are there bad outcomes that you aren’t as afraid of you as you should be, where fear would influence you in a positive direction (e.g. related to long term health)?



Discovery of scarcity: you used to take your best friend for granted, but now that you know he is moving away in 6 months you’re trying to spend as much quality time with him as possible

Question: what is scarce that you haven’t yet identified as such (e.g. time spent with the people who are most important to you)?

Change in self-image: you usually think of yourself as not being capable, so you don’t even try to accomplish worthwhile things, but once you learned self-compassion techniques, stopped belittling your own abilities, purposely thought recalled examples where you demonstrated capability, and started to set more ambitious goals, you realized that you are capable of a lot more than you thought

Question: in what harmful ways do you think of or treat yourself (e.g. do you put yourself down more than you would advocate that others put themselves down)?

Identifying your values: you’ve been working for years to rise through the ranks of your current industry, jumping through each hoop that was laid out in front of you, but when you finally sit down to deeply consider what you care about you realize that the sort of work done in your industry is out of alignment with your values, so you suddenly switch careers

Question: what are you doing now that is out of alignment with your values (e.g. in your career or personal life)?

Change in world view: you grew up being taught that, since you are really smart, good things will come to you automatically, and that it makes you even smarter if you don’t have to try hard, but you finally now realize that your world view was having profound negative consequences in your life, and that trying hard greatly increases the opportunities available to you

Question: what perspectives on the world do you hold that could use some reconsideration (e.g. about the nature of success)?

Refocussing of attention: you didn’t used to notice that you regularly put people down, but now that someone pointed it out, you notice when you begin to do it, and with this self-awareness you finally begin to stop yourself

Question: what behaviors of yours that you do regularly do you not even notice, that it might be worth paying more attention to (e.g. behaviors that may have negative impacts on others)?



Medical treatment: you had a severe hormone imbalance which a blood test identified, and now that you are getting the proper treatment, your daily behavior is more aligned with the way you want to act

Question: are you getting and sticking with the medical treatments that you need?

Biochemical change: when you were young you often felt irritable, and engaged in impulsive, reactant, reckless behaviors, but now that you are older you feel more stable and less impulsive

Question: in what ways are you changing as you get older, and which of these ways are positive and negative (e.g. have you forgotten the value of play)?



Modeling of positive behaviors: your friend speaks openly about struggles she is going through, and you start to mimic this behavior by telling her about your struggles, which you usually don’t tell a soul about

Question: what behaviors of the people around you do you wish you did too (e.g. related to how they act in social situations)?

Responsibility: you used to engage in a variety of risky behaviors, but once you had a child you realized that these behaviors could deeply impact your child’s well being, so you stopped doing them

Question: what are you responsible for in your life beyond your own welfare that has a positive influence on your behavior (e.g. acting as a role model to others)?



Retraining habits: you realize that you have a habit of lying in bed as soon as you get home, which makes you sleepy and lethargic, so you practice a new habit of dancing to electronic dance music for 5 minutes as soon as you get home, which makes you energetic and happy

Question: what habits of yours are harmful, and what new habits would you like to override them with (e.g. what are you doing that’s negative that you don’t even notice yourself doing anymore)?



Environment change: you used to live at home, which had cues that would set off certain of your undesirable behaviors, then you moved off to school where those cues don’t happen

Question: is it time to make a change in your environment (e.g. are there cues in your current environment that are triggering you to act in a way you don’t like)?

Need fulfillment: you used to not have enough money, which you would be constantly distracted by and worry about leading to a number of undesirable behaviors, but now that you have a job that pays reasonably well you have more mental space and find it easy to focus on other things

Question: which needs of yours are not currently being met (e.g. physical or emotional)?

One thought on “The Theories of Change List: Causes of Behavior Quickly Shifting in a Positive Direction

  1. This question is allied with the question of resilience which has received great research. A new and important direction is to build the capacity for resilience in advance through various methods. See Writing by Reivich etc.and other writers. Being done with soldiers pre-combat.

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