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  • Julie de Vaan

What you need te know about behaviour and behavioural change

Updated: Apr 11


Behaviour and behavioural change. What is it, and what should or could you do with it? We briefly explain behaviour, why we make certain choices, and the principles of behavioural change.


Where does our behaviour come from?

Thanks to thousands of years of evolution, people's brains all work pretty much the same way. We have a whole set of "buttons" in our heads. Pushing these buttons leads to certain behaviour.


Our buttons are automatically pushed by signals that we receive from the outside. This enables us to continuously react to the situation we find ourselves in. This is useful, because we are not always able or in the mood to think through every choice we make very carefully. So our buttons help us to make all kinds of choices quickly throughout the day without actively thinking about it. However, this also makes that our behaviour is largely influenced by the situation we find ourselves in.


Why do we show certain behaviour?

From an evolutionary point of view, the buttons in our heads are very useful: they helped us survive in prehistoric times, and still do today. They warn us, guide us and save us a lot of time and energy.


But despite the buttons in our heads, we remain people, and not machines. Sometimes our operating system does not work optimally and we make the wrong choices. That's because situations change much faster than our buttons do. As a result, situations are sometimes far too complicated to simply make the right choices based on our buttons. Or sometimes, choices that were previously desired, are no longer desirable in the current situation. Updating our operating system takes a very long time. Therefore, the ancient buttons in our heads continue to have an influence. That way, we are not always programmed to make the best choices.


Some simple examples:

  • From an evolutionary point of view, a sweet taste indicates an energy source for the body. That is why we have a programmed preference for sweet. But with the amount of sugar that is available today, sugar and sweets are actually a threat for our health. Yet we continue to crave it.

  • When we had little food available for our bodies as energy, saving energy was an important survival skill. As a result, we still often prefer to “do nothing”. Therefore, we often experience difficulty with adopting changes, and we often go for the easiest options. Even if the default is not what's best for us.

  • In the past, people traveled less far, so they didn't come across groups with other characteristics (such as beliefs or appearances) very often. And if they did, they initially knew nothing about these other groups' customs and intentions. Therefore, caution was advised. Nowadays you can travel to the other side of the world within a few hours. It is normal to live with people from other parts of the world, or to be in touch with people with different characteristics. Yet we often still label these people as unknown, scary and potentially dangerous.


How does behavioural change work?

To change behaviour or to help people make the right choices, we often assume that people are able to make conscious decisions always and everywhere. Therefore, in order to change behaviour, we usually give people information and emphasize the consequences of our behaviour. When people are able to think their choices through carefully, they then will indeed make the perfect decisions.


But often, that is not the case. If we do not have the necessary attention, intention or cognitive capacity to make a very conscious choice, we will act based on our buttons and our automatic operating system. If the situation then does not push the right buttons, we are likely to make the bad decisions on autopilot.


The most effective way to change behaviour is to create a situation that pushes the right buttons. People will then make the best choices by default. Behavioural change is therefore all about investigating and understanding which buttons in our head are important for behaviour, and how to push these buttons to stimulate this behaviour. With expertise in behavioural change, you can therefore create a situation that leads to the best behaviour on default.


Changing behaviour effectively and in the long term is complicated. To make it easier, we develop Behavioural Maps. They make psychological knowledge and behavioural science more understandable, manageable and applicable. Click here to read more about this.

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