Sustainable Change: Programmed vs. Natural Behavioral Consequences

Both natural and “programmed” factors in the environment influence our behavior. Without getting too complex or technical, antecedent variables prompt us to take (or not take) action — they come before the behavior. The consequences of our actions will either increase (or decrease) the probability that we will engage in the behavior again in the future. For example, if we get something we want after engaging in a behavior (tangible or not–this could be “good vibes/feelings” or improved self-perception), we are more likely to repeat that behavior.

The consequences of our behavior are the ultimate determinant of the actions we take, and the goal is to set up the environment to support desired behaviors. Some of the natural consequences associated with healthy lifestyle behavior change are initially negative and uncomfortable (e.g., sore muscles after exercising, increased time spent meal planning). As a result, these consequences can be more powerful than the delayed, positive natural consequences (e.g., improved health, increased strength, decreased digestive discomfort).

Coach Julie loves to support her clients (and her favorite NFL team)!

Looking for ways to make it easier engage in new behaviors/habits (reduce response effort) is one extremely useful and effective strategy to counteract some of the powerful consequences associated with engaging in undesired habits. However, the use of “programmed” consequences is also very useful in the early stages of one’s behavior change efforts. For example, you might hire a coach or seek out a friend for accountability, someone who can provide you with social support and positive attention for engaging in daily activities related to your goals.

Over time, for behavior change to truly sustain (especially with regard to health and wellbeing goals), I believe that the natural, positive consequences of the behavior MUST, as a whole, become more powerful than the negative consequences. Otherwise, once the programmed consequences are removed (e.g., coach, supportive friends/family), the behavior is less likely to maintain and also unlikely to generalize to other related behaviors.

Personally, I believe that if the change in behavior you are making results in the natural consequence of living your life in such a way that the actions you take are useful, or workable, for valued living, then this behavior change is more likely to be sustained. My belief is rooted in my own experience, the observation of others, along with my reading of research on the importance of aligning one’s goals with who or what is important.

The first and most important step, then, is to identify what matters (your values).

In upcoming posts, I’ll be sharing more about the roles of self-awareness, curiosity, values, and consequences in the behavior change process. Stay tuned!