Five Dimensions of Behavioural Change

Why do people say they want to change and often refrain from actually doing something about their behaviour? And to what extend does our motivation to do more sports, read more books or drink less alcohol predict our success?

Researchers have found a strong gap between intention and behaviour. You might experience it yourself: you want more than you actually act upon and you might see others struggle to take action. So how can you motivate others to change? Understanding why people do not take action can help to influence behaviour in different ways. In this blog I will explain 5 dimensions that I use in the Netherlands to design possible interventions.

1.      Attitude

People use arguments for themselves that are used as an excuse or can help to perform the desired behaviour. Understanding how people talk to themselves and others will help you to detect possible barriers or beliefs that you can use in your communication. Say for example you want to motivate people to travel before or after rush hour. Positive associations with this behaviour might be beliefs such as ‘journeys are more relaxed’ or ‘I can spend more time with my family’, whereas negative beliefs might be ‘I don’t want to wake up early’ or ‘I don’t want to come’ home late. Be careful however with putting to much emphasis on these arguments. Knowledge on itself does not always lead to behaviour.

2.      Competences.

People might want to perform a different behaviour, but certain factors may hinder them to actually do it. Think about factors like time, money, knowledge, access to certain materials or assistance from other people. Peoples perception of how hard it is to actually do something has a strong influence on their actions. Therefore, it is extremely powerful to either show how easy it is or to make the steps to take action less difficult. People in rush hour for example may believe that they don’t have a choice because time schedules are fixed by responsibilities at work or at home. Or train connections may be smoother in rush hour. You should closely analyse the perceived competences that one has to control the behaviour. Ignoring these perceptions and competences, will either cause your appeal to be unnoticed or you might miss an opportunity to make it easier for people.

3.      Environment

The context in which people perform their behaviour has a strong influence on how they choose to act. On this environmental dimension you should closely analyse both the social environment and the physical environment.

  • The social environment are all the actions and opinions from other people that might influence behaviour. That might be the colleagues that have their opinion on you arriving late or leaving early or the simple excuse ‘everybody else does it, so I don’t have a choice’. Often it appears that social environmental factors are also mainly perceptions not always reflecting reality.
  • The physical environment is important to consider in which context choices are made and to detect possible interventions that have an effect on people’s actions. On this account nudging (gently help someone perform desired behaviour by presenting some environmental cues) might work really well.

4.      Expectations from the messenger

If you want to influence someone’s behaviour, your relationship to the target audience is extremely important. If someone does not expect a certain message from you or your organization, or it does not fit the image that the audience has from you, it might work against you. This also involves the attitude: ‘who are you to tell me what to do or don’t.’ So always consider who should be the messenger for a certain appeal. Does it fit your organization? Does your message make sense with regards to your earlier campaigns? By considering the expectations, you can also find out that a strategy using other people or organizations to spread the message will have more impact on the desired behaviour.

5.      Triggers

Some occasions or cues trigger a certain behaviour. Identifying these cues is vital to create change. You want to influence people at the moment they are making a decision. This dimension also involves looking at emotions that will fuel certain behaviour. Timing and location is vital to make sure your change appeal will have some effect. With regards to rush hour, you might want to look into the moments that people start planning their trip, or to guide them with information on the spot. When you are able to identify triggers in the decision-making process, you might be able to influence the decisions in that exact moment.

Graphic showing 5 dimensions of behaviour change


Using these 5 dimensions can help you get started. It will enable you to have a basic understanding of human behaviour and to decide which intervention might work best for your target audience.

These dimensions are designed by CommunicatieBaas, a consultancy company on behavioural change and communications based in the Netherlands.  The dimensions are mainly based on Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behavior and BJ Fogg’s behaviour model and adjusted to make behavioural analyses and design interventions.

Rik Baas

Rik is the owner of CommunicatieBaas, a company in The Netherlands that helps organisations to enable behavioural change. Working mainly in the public sector, Rik worked for companies like the Dutch Railway Company, the Police and several social housing companies. Topics include sustainability, workplace safety, travelling behaviour and intrinsic motivation at work.

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