Why Is Behavior Change So Hard?

Tips for coaches and consultants to help clients change.

Posted Mar 20, 2018

Humans are great at setting goals, but not nearly as good at attaining them. Why? Countless resources have been dedicated to answering that question in academic fields, including consulting psychology, management, and social psychology. And even those efforts must be dwarfed by the cumulative time spent pondering the question by every human being who set a goal and failed to achieve it.

In a new paper in the Consulting Psychology Journal, I provide a conceptual framework to explain why behavior change can be so hard. The framework draws upon neuroscientific data, as well as theory and research from social, cognitive, and clinical psychology. The purpose of the paper is to provide consultants and coaches with new, evidence-based tools to help their clients understand why they struggle to change their behavior. Insight into the underlying factors that make behavior change hard can highlight ways that clients and coaches can work together to overcome them.

As a researcher working at the interface of psychology and neuroscience, I've spent the past decade and a half considering how knowledge about the human brain can inform behavior change interventions. I've found that one of the most useful approaches is to divide behavior change into two broad components: the will and the way.

The way I'm using it here, the “will” refers to the motivational and emotional aspects of behavior change. The will is the “why” of behavior change. Why is the behavior important to you? Why do you want to change? Why now?

In contrast, the “way” refers to the cognitive and informational aspects of behavior change. The way is the “how” of behavior change. How is behavior change going to unfold? What skills and capacities does it require? What is the specific plan?

Both the will and the way are necessary for successful behavior change. A goal requires a will and a way. But neuroscience has revealed that the brain systems involved in those two sides of the behavior change coin are entirely different from each other. Likewise, the interventions that a coach can use to help a client who is struggling with behavior change would be very different if the problem were related to the will or the way.

The first step for a coach is to identify the nature of the problem. Is the barrier to change a lack of knowledge, skill, or capacity? Then tools can be identified to address those “way” issues. Alternatively, perhaps the client knows what to do and how to do it, but just can't. Then a motivational program is in order. And the options are not mutually exclusive: Sometimes skill-building is required in addition to finding motivation. But even in that case, it can be useful to acknowledge the distinction between the two and address them separately.

Learning new skills, abilities, and information requires executive function, which is the term neuroscientists use to describe the “way.” A core feature of executive function is that it demands conscious attention, and we can only fully attend to one thing at a time. Deploying executive function to deal with one goal means that other goals are pushed into the mental background. In economic terms, there is an opportunity cost to deploying the way. That cost is reflected in the sense of effort. So, changing behavior can feel hard, because it means directing your limited mental focus on one goal and ignoring others.

But what about cases when the skills and knowledge are there, but the will is not? Why can it feel so hard to motivate yourself to do something that you have the ability to do? In the Consulting Psychology Journal paper, I describe how motivation is intertwined with reward value, and reward value, in turn, is deeply influenced by past experience. An important consequence of this biological fact is that new behaviors are rarely as motivating as existing ones that have previously been rewarded. Why try that new exercise, for example, when it may or may not feel good, and you know for sure that watching Netflix will be enjoyable?

Of course, people do engage in new behaviors and for a variety of reasons. It's not that new behaviors can't be rewarding; it's just that they'll usually be the underdog compared to alternatives that are well learned. The key for coaches and consultants is to help clients identify ways of engaging with new tasks that make them rewarding.

One such approach is to increase reward with personal sources of value by linking the new behavior with core values and beliefs that are central to a client's identity. Another is to increase reward with social value by leveraging social norms and interpersonal relationships to increase the importance of a goal. Both of these cases have an advantage over tangible forms of value, such as money, because they can be far more enduring and universal. Money runs out and doesn't have the same meaning for all people, but we all have core values and care deeply about our social ties.

Behavior change will always be hard. No advice can change that. But neuroscience can provide insights about how, when, and why behavior change efforts succeed and fail. This knowledge can uncover new ways for coaches and their clients to promote change — and makes behavior change seem less daunting in the process.

References

Berkman, E.T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change: Lessons learned for consulting psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70, 28-44.