Human behaviour is complex and difficult to alter. But with a thorough understanding of it, you’ll be well equipped to make lasting behaviour change.
Why is it so damn difficult to change our behaviour? I don’t know about you, but once a pattern of behaviour sets in with me, I find it very difficult to disrupt. This speaks to how we are wired: our brains make decisions either consciously (reflectively) or non-consciously (automatically) (1).
The book: ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, by Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, discusses the concept that our brain makes decisions either consciously or unconsciously. This is known as a dual-process theory of human behaviour (1).
Because conscious actions take more effort than non-conscious actions, our brain likes to make behaviours automatic, if it can. This may explain how habits can seem to sneak up on us and lodge themselves within our everyday routines. If we want to get rid of these habits, we then face the issue of conscious effort, which our brain does not want to engage in. Et voila—this phenomenon may explain how bad habits often linger.
But we don’t have to be resigned to a lifestyle full of bad habits. We do have the agency to change our behaviour—no matter how difficult it can be. To guide this process, we need a thorough understanding of human behaviour. That’s where the COM-B model comes in (Figure 1) (2).
Figure 1. The COM-B model of human behaviour (2). In this model, behaviour is a function of the capability, opportunity, and motivation of an individual. If they lack any one of these components with regards to a specific behaviour, the behaviour will not take place.
The COM-B Model
The COM-B—or Capability, Opportunity, and Motivation Behaviour—model is a comprehensive system for understanding human behaviour (2). It was created by world-leading behaviour change researchers and is used by researchers and policymakers worldwide. The COM-B model illustrates that capability, opportunity, and motivation are the three necessary components for behaviour change (Figure 1).
Capability is divided into physical and psychological capability. Physical capability refers to an individual's physical capacity or ability to perform a particular behaviour, e.g., the physical ability to ride a bike. Psychological capability refers to an individual’s mental (or cognitive) capacity to understand and engage in a behaviour, e.g., possessing the knowledge to cook a meal.
Opportunity is divided into social and physical opportunity. Social opportunity refers to the external factors in the social environment that may influence or facilitate a specific behaviour, e.g., having a friend who encourages you to work out. Physical opportunity refers to the external factors in the physical environment that may influence or facilitate a specific behaviour, e.g., having access to a bike is necessary to be able to cycle.
Motivation is divided into automatic and reflective motivation. Automatic motivation involves non-conscious or habitual processes that drive behaviour without requiring active thought or intention, e.g., brushing your teeth or putting on your seatbelt. Reflective motivation refers to the conscious and reflective processes of decision-making, goal-setting, and intention formation that influence behaviour, e.g., intending to go to the gym. As such, the motivation aspect of the COM-B model incorporates dual-process theories of behaviour change (Figure 2) (1).
Figure 2. Dual-process theory of human behaviour, depicting how the brain can guide behaviour in an automatic (System 1) fashion, or a reflective (System 2) fashion (1).
A Blueprint for Behaviour Change
The three components of the COM-B model provide a blueprint from which we can understand how to change our behaviour because if any one of these three components (i.e., capability, opportunity, and motivation) is not present, the specific behaviour will not be carried out.
Let’s say I want to meet my friend for a coffee in town: I have the (reflective) motivation, as I have thought about this and decided I would like to do it. I have the physical and psychological capability to perform this action as I am able-bodied, so I can walk to the bus stop, and I can also understand where to get off the bus and meet my friend. I have the social opportunity to perform this behaviour, as my friend wants to meet me. However, when I reach the bus stop, I realise that the bus drivers are on strike and no buses are running; thus, I do not have the physical opportunity to get into town and meet my friend (assuming I have no other means of travel).
Now, think about a behaviour you want to perform but you struggle to. Think through the components of the COM-B model and highlight which component is holding you back from meeting this behaviour. This is key: from here, you can identify how to overcome this issue.
Let’s say I currently eat only one serving of fruits and vegetables per day, but my goal is to eat five servings per day:
Capability: I have the physical capability to go to the shops and buy the fruits and vegetables and I have the psychological capacity to understand how to eat fruits but I am not confident at how to cook vegetables
Opportunity: I do not have much social opportunity (or support) to eat fruits and vegetables as my work colleagues don’t eat much of them, and neither does my family. I have the physical opportunity to purchase fruits and vegetables as I can drive to the shop
Motivation: I have the (reflective) motivation to eat fruits and vegetables, but I would tend to automatically choose other foods when I am hungry or tired
Example 2 has highlighted psychological capacity, social opportunity, and (automatic) motivation as potential components holding me back from achieving my goal of eating five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. To address this, I could learn how to cook vegetables (to improve psychological capacity), seek out support from family and friends (to improve social opportunity), and try to make eating fruits and vegetables into a habit (and thus an automatic choice).
PS. Our article on strategic action plans can help you to make behaviours automatic!
The COM-B model allows us to condense the complexity of human behaviour into three basic components: capability, opportunity, and motivation. If any one is not present for a particular behaviour, that behaviour will not occur. As we are roughly three weeks into January, and new year resolutions may be fading, using this model to better understand your behaviour can help make your resolutions stick.
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Thanks for reading! For more content like this, check out our other articles on behaviour change.
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
(1) Houlihan S. Dual-process models of health-related behaviour and cognition: a review of theory. Public Health. 2018;156:52–9. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0033350617303682
(2) Michie S, van Stralen MM, West R. The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implement Sci. 2011;6:42. Available at: https://implementationscience.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1748-5908-6-42