Behavior Change

Simply put, behavior change is when a person’s actions change, either temporarily or permanently, relative to their past actions.

Depending on the person’s goals, these changes can be beneficial or not. In the context of fields like nudging and choice architecture, behavior change is typically talked about in the context of some kind of intervention - for example, helping people to quit smoking, exercise more or save money for retirement.

At the same time, psychologists use behavior change to describe any kind of alteration in a person’s actions, which can happen for lots of reasons (e.g. a mental health issue, changes in the physical environment, social pressure, etc.).

That said, the context we’re interested in is the nudging kind of behavior change - how we can understand people’s goals and help them get there more effectively.

What is behavior change?

Choice Architecture

This term was coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. The idea behind their term was to help people reduce ‘errors’ in decision-making that arise because of a set of very predictable biases - in other words, to nudge them toward decisions and actions that are in their best self-interest. Of course, deciding what’s in a person’s interest is no walk in the park, and this is why choice architecture, and the underlying “libertarian paternalism” philosophy that Thaler and Sunstein promote, have received some criticism.


Some basic strategies to improve decision-making are things like:

  • Making better choices more salient - for example, the famous example of putting healthier eating options at eye level on a menu board. An experiment in a New York cafeteria found that elevating the placement of fruits and salads increased their sales by 25%.
  • Reducing choice overload by limiting the number of alternatives a person has to explore - for example, the other famous example of reducing the number of jams. A study conducted in a gourmet market demonstrated that customers exposed to 24 varieties of jam were ten times less likely to purchase than those who encountered only 6 varieties.
  • Using defaults to leverage the fact that people tend to take the path of least resistance, particularly when faced with tough decisions - for instance, automatically enrolling employees in retirement savings plans, but allowing them to opt out if they choose. Studies show that default enrollment can increase participation rates dramatically, often exceeding 90%.
  • Simplifying information to help people understand their choices better - for example, redesigning electricity bills to make costs and savings clearer can lead to more informed and better decisions about energy consumption.
  • Providing immediate feedback - this can help people understand the consequences of their choices in real-time. For example, displaying real-time fuel consumption in cars can lead drivers to adopt more fuel-efficient driving habits.
  • Incentivizing desired behaviors - for example, offering small financial rewards for using less energy during peak hours has been shown to reduce overall electricity consumption significantly.

the dark side of behavior change

Quick ethics sidenote: at TDL, we subscribe quite strongly to SPICE: Socially-conscious, Pragmatic, Inventive, Catalytic, Evidence-based. We wouldn’t be worthy of the S if we didn’t mention the dark side of all of this. Many behavior change efforts are there to understand what people want to achieve and empower them to do it. But, in other cases, behavior change can be coercive - i.e. pushing people toward something they do not actually want, or that may even be harmful to them (e.g. a gambling website). We’re not here to pass judgment but suffice it to say that the research which all of this is grounded on is generally bound by very strict ethical guidelines - guidelines which ideally should exist in industry as well, but hey, lots of things ‘should’.

Using Behavior Change Frameworks

Okay, back to our regular programming. While basic strategies like the ones we listed above (salience, defaults and so on) are a good starting point for trying to design interventions,many situations called for a more complex approach. For example, while changing a retirement savings account from opt-in by default to opt-out by default might increase participation drastically, you may need a more sophisticated approach to increase the amount of contributions. This is where behavior change frameworks come into play - they allow you to really dissect a target behavior (e.g. increasing contributions) into lots of small elements (e.g. social influence, salience, loss aversion, etc.) that can then help you design a single intervention that is jam-packed with the right combination of ‘basic’ ingredients. In essence, behavior change frameworks allow you to go from the raw ingredients to a complex cooked meal.

building a behavior change framework

Frameworks like COM-B, EAST and MINDSPACE essentially allow applied behavioral scientists (those people who do behavior change projects) to clearly diagnose a problem and design a sophisticated solution. An important caveat here is that frameworks, like any non-empirical tool, are meant to give you a starting point for building hypotheses that you then test empirically. In other words, while the output may work, it also may not. It’s your responsibility to design solid experiments that allow you to tell the difference. 

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

Read Next

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?