Most people have experienced the phenomenon of attempting to change a negative behavior or habit and finding that change process difficult. Anyone who has made a resolution to stop smoking or to exercise daily, for example, knows first-hand how challenging the process of changing patterns and behaviors is.

Human beings are habit-bound. As Wood, Tarn, and Witt (2005) observe, “Daily life is characterized by repetition…. a full 47% of people’s daily activities are enacted almost daily and usually in the same location. The consistency of everyday life establishes habits, or behavioral dispositions to repeat well-practiced actions given recurring circumstances” (p. 918). Not all habits are bad, of course; some are necessary and adaptive. For people who want to change negative, health-threatening habits, however, understanding how personality theories inform the processes of change can improve their chances for success.

Social-cognitive theories of personality are very interested in describing and explaining how change processes work. As noted social-cognitive theorist Bandura (2001) observes, “The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness” (p. 1). For this reason, social-cognitive theorists have devoted extensive effort to identifying the mechanisms of personality that either foster or inhibit change. According to Schwarz (2001), the social cognitive theory of personality considers change to be comprised of two distinct processes that must be deployed in stages. The first process is developing the awareness of a problem and developing the motivation to change that problem and experience relief. Many people can reach this stage and resolve it successfully; however, social-cognitive theorists acknowledge that there is often a gap between this stage and the second stage, which they characterize as a disconnect between “informed awareness and the intention to act” (Sheeshka, Woolcott, & Mackinnon, 1993). The second process, which Schwarz (2001) refers to as volition, involves the actual planning and implementation of the change behavior. The volition process is challenging because it also involves the maintenance of the new behavior over the course of time. Social-cognitive theorists have contributed a great deal to our understanding of this phase of the change process, particularly because they posit that relapse and reactivation of motivation are normal parts of the effort to change a negative behavior.

Behavioral theory has also long been interested in explaining how people change habits. In fact, one might argue that behavioral theory was founded in order to explain the change process. Pavlov’s and Skinner’s classical experiments demonstrate concretely how change can be motivated and negotiated by external forces, including the use of positive or negative reinforcement to provoke an adaptive response and compensate for weaknesses (Elder, 1999). Both Pavlov and Skinner concluded that the patterns of human behavior can be understood by examining the consequences of behavior. According to their theories, habits form because the repeated behavior produces a consistent and predictable response which is therefore manageable, even if it is negative. In order to provoke behavioral change, then, the consequences of the behavior must change.

One of the criticisms that has been lodged against behavioral theory as a means of explaining change processes, however, is that it focuses only on the external, observable exchanges between people and their environments, and in doing so, fails to consider the cognitive processes that are not as easily observable. In fact, this is one of the primary distinctions between this theory and social cognitive theories of personality. Morris and Todd (1995) summarize the behavioralists’ position in this regard, explaining that “while behaviorists define mental states in terms of stimuli and responses, they d[o] not think mental states were themselves [the] causes of the responses and the effects of the stimuli (p. 80). Thus, the behavioral and social-cognitive theories of change are divergent in that the former does not view contemplation of the problem and thoughts about the need to change and become motivated to pursue a change process as important components of habit reformation. The behaviorists contend that both personality and behavior are shaped by external punishments and rewards, and when the pain or discomfort of the punishment exceeds any gains perceived or received from the negative behavior, the person will be externally provoked to change in order to fulfill the same need in a different and more adaptive manner. Social-cognitive theorists, on the other hand, consider contemplation to be one of the necessary precursors to change, and argue that lasting change will only occur if the individual desires to change, makes a specific plan to do so, and monitors his or her progress and setbacks.

Given human beings’ collective struggle to transform negative habits into healthy and positive ones, there is a wealth of research on the subject of habit-change processes, ranging from studies about smoking and eating habits to exercise practices and pathological behaviors, such as addictive gambling and drug use. A recent study conducted by Mildestvedt and Meland (2007) examined the process of changing three particular lifestyle habits among a study population of 217 patients who had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. These habits were smoking, diet, and exercise, all of which have been correlated as predictors of heart disease.  In particular, Mildestvedt and Meland (2007) were interested in determining whether there were any significant discrepancies between those participants who were classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged and suffering from elevated emotional distress and those participants who were financially and emotionally stable. The reason for their interest in this particular subject was that they wanted to test the validity of the widespread belief that socioeconomically and emotionally disadvantaged people have a poor prognosis when diagnosed with cardiovascular disease because they lack the tangible and intangible resources to be able to change their conditions and habits, including the habit of smoking.

The methodology utilized by Mildestvedt and Meland (2007) was a randomized controlled clinical trial that was longitudinal in nature. The researchers measured both the participants’ motivation to change and their actual behavioral changes; they also assessed the relative ability of each participant to change their behaviors. The inability to change behaviors was predicted to be correlated to low socioeconomic status, the habit of smoking, and high levels of emotional distress. The researchers reported that the motivation and ability to change habits in the three key areas—smoking, diet, and exercise—were lowest among the smokers and people who exhibited significant emotional distress. Interestingly, however, there were no significant correlations between socioeconomic status and the ability to change. Among those participants who were able to initiate the processes of change, Mildestvedt and Meland (2007) observed that changes in habits were not significant after just six months, but they had improved substantially over time, showing the most progress at the 24-month follow-up period. The most interesting conclusion, however, was that “The mediating effects of motivational factors were [determined to be] insignificant” across the board (Mildestvedt & Meland, 2007, p. 140). In other words, external rewards and consequences were not considered to be sufficient motivators for change in the case of the participants in this study. This finding is significant because it contests behavioral theory. It is also significant because the stakes of not changing are obviously high: the failure to contemplate, implement, and maintain changes in the areas of smoking, diet, and exercise can literally signify the difference between life and death for the participants in this study.

Although Mildestvedt and Meland (2007) did not articulate that their intention was to study the process of habit change by applying the frameworks of social-cognitive or behavioral personality theories, their research findings distinguished, at least with respect to the particular population they studied, the differences between the two theoretical frameworks regarding their respective theories about change. The population that the researchers selected is an interesting one relevant to our consideration of the value of these two personality theories because the study participants obviously had a clear reason to want to change. The failure of the participants to develop adaptive habits in the areas of smoking, dietary intake, and exercise practices could contribute to an early and painful death. One might think that there is no external motivator more powerful than that. Yet, the findings of Mildestvedt and Meland (2007) suggest that external motivators are not significant predictors of meaningful change. There is a complex structure of variables that influences whether individuals even have the ability—and not simply the desire—to change.

The implications of these findings suggest that the contemporary criticisms of behavioral theory are valid. Behavioralism oversimplifies human decision-making and behavior, despite the fact that it does contribute valid and valuable theories that can be integrated into our study of personality and behavior. Mildestvedt’s and Meland’s (2007) study acknowledges, as does social-cognitive theory, that there are multiple factors that influence the change process. There is a complex transition that occurs between the stage of thinking about change—even when it is clearly and desperately needed—and the actual processes of change implementation, maintenance, and relapse management. Based on this study, it appears clear that social-cognitive theories of personality are more useful constructs than those of behavioral theory to help understand how change occurs.

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Mildestvedt, Thomas, & Meland, E. (2007). Examining the “Matthew Effect” on the motivation and ability to make lifestyle changes in 217 heart rehabilitation patients. The Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 35(2), 140-147.

Schwarzer, R. (2001). Social cognitive factors in changing health-related behaviors. Current Directions in Changing Health-Related Behaviors, 10(2), 47-51.

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