Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Behavioural activation and motivation

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Behavioural activation and motivation:
How does behavioural activation help maintain motivation to achieve desired goals?

Overview[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Stop, Take a moment to consider. Do you know what gets you started and keeps you going? How do you rally yourself into action and maintain your motivation? what might be some useful ways of making those first steps towards achieving your goals?

Focus questions
  • What is behavioural activation?
  • What is the relationship between motivation and behavioural activation what does the theory say?
  • What are some useful techniques for activating behaviour?
  • What are some useful tips techniques for maintaining motivation?
Figure 1. Why wait till tomorrow when you can do it now?

What is behavioural activation?[edit | edit source]

Have you ever wondered why its so hard stay motivated to engage in desired behaviours?  Imagine the health and well-being benefits if we could consistently activate our behaviour and maintain motivation to achieve our goals?  Sounds easy right?  Despite the best efforts of behavioural science, this is a question that investigators continue to grapple with.  How to stay motivated; how to keep activating behaviour towards a desired goal and how to maintain the results once we get there.  You might be surprised to discover that most people find change and sustaining motivation a tough task (Kelly & Barker, 2016).  So how can the best of what behavioural science has to offer give us some clues about what might be helpful to activate behaviour consistently and maintain our motivation along the way?

Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) posited that deliberate volitional cognitive or behavioural activity offers a sound avenue towards ongoing improvements in well-being.  Typically such endeavors demand some effort to enact and may include behaviours like pursuing individual goals, practising loving kindness and compassion, reframing cognitive attitudes or implementing an exercise program.  These investigators suggest that efficacy in this regard is facilitated by fitting in with the values and interests of the individual concerned (Mazzucchelli, Kane & Rees, 2010). Equally, one of the most promising ways to increase well-being is to engage in valued and enjoyable activities. Behavioural activation (BA), an intervention for depression, is consistent with this recommendation and [Just like Mindfulness] can easily be adapted for non-clinical populations. To add weight to this there is compelling evidence that behavioural activation may be a useful tool that can be leveraged to improve health and well-being across populations (Mazzucchelli, Kane & Rees, 2010) For the purpose of this book chapter behavioural activation will be defined as the first observable behavioural movement towards goal pursuits or desired endstates.

The Relationship between motivation and activating behaviour[edit | edit source]

To use a metaphor, if behaviour is the engine room of moving towards a goal then motivation is the fuel that gets us there. With this in mind if we consider complex problems like writers block, or study procrastination, clearly movement towards addressing such issues often begins with the activation of some kind of behaviour. Drawing from the theoretical foundations of radical behaviorism not only physical movement (or behaviour) but also thoughts or our private experiences can be viewed as forms of behaviour. This is important because it is likely that we will get the best results if we use a menu of strategies that take into account thinking, emotions, situations, behavior and the environment.

Motivation is defined as:

The “activating orientation of current life pursuits toward a positively evaluated goal state” (Rheinberg & Vollmeyer, 2018, p. 15).  

The magic of making motivation[edit | edit source]

Motivation science is interested in the methods and procedures underlying the persistence direction initiation and intensity of behaviour (Richter, Gendolla & Wright, 2016). It may be useful to consider that two main qualities underlie the framework and expression of motivation in human action:

  1. The striving for control
  2. How goal engagement and disengagement is organised

Many investigators have found that Mammals and likely other species have a general preference for behaviour-event contingencies, (eg, baby cries, mother attends). Equally, motivation is partly regulated by emotionally based responses to positive and negative events (Frijda, 1988). Similarly, organisms quickly adapt to positive endstates embodied after positive events. In contrast, negative events and associated affect are much longer lasting.  In sum, this motivates us to strive toward new goals rather than get lazy or complacent after successes and helps prevent us from giving up too soon after we fail or something doesn't quite go our way (Heckhausen, & Heckhausen, 2018). Behavioural science indicates that humans are hard-wired to explore and engage with their environments. Equally, we are also inclined to regulate our internal worlds, our thoughts, emotions moods and aspirations.  It is likely that this occurs to help make life engaging, fulfilling enjoyable and socially connected (Heckhausen, & Heckhausen, 2018).

Goal engagement and Goal Disengagement[edit | edit source]

Evolution has primed human beings to organise activation of behaviour towards desired goals or disengage from fruitless goals.  This enables us to better manage finite resources and quickly respond to goal orientated environmental cues and equally ignore unhelpful environmentally irrelevant stimuli (Heckhausen, & Heckhausen, 2018).  Developing a clear goal allows us to put key procedures in place, to prime cognition to make it more likely we are going to garner action towards a goal and shield ourselves from potential distractions or engagement in behaviour that may sabotage goal achievement (Heckhausen, & Heckhausen, 2018) Similarly, goal disengagement incorporates degrading the initial goal and prioritising new goals by choosing to perceive them as more attractive and achievable, fortifying self esteem from failure and evaluating if goal  disengagement impairs long-term motivational resources (J. Heckhausen, 1999; Heckhausen, Wrosch, & Schulz, 2010).

Motivation as a product of person and situation[edit | edit source]

Motivational psychology strives to understand how people maintain the intensity, consistency and direction of goal governed behaviour. This invariably includes factors relating to the person and situation perceived action outcomes and its consequences (Heckhausen & Rheinberg, 1980). Pursuit of goal motivation is determined by an interaction of personal preference [Or internal regulation] and situational  stimuli. For example a situational cue might trigger motivation to activate behaviour towards a desired goal.

Motivational and Volitional Regulation in the Course of Activating a behaviour[edit | edit source]

Clearly our personal evaluations of situational incentives are mediated by our internal experiences. To launch ourselves into activating a behaviour we must form an intention.  It is this intention that determines which motivational drives gain weight and become implemented or retract and subside.  This self sufficient process mediates which motivational inclinations get implemented a process referred to as "Volition".  The organisation of this action control centre guides action but requires guidance to mediate between the options that arise in situations throughout the environment simply put, this is what we refer to as motivation.  In sum, it is motivation that allows us to recognise that some options and actions are better than others (Kuhl, 2000).

Motivational Theory[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Mastery Motivation theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Mastery motivation theory predicts you will engage in a behaviour until its mastered

Achievement and Mastery motivational theories are useful to consider because they require ongoing, consistent activation of behaviour towards any goal.  Some of these theories include Self-Determination Theory (e.g., Ryan & Deci, 2017), Expectancy-value theory (e.g., Wigfield & Eccles, 2000) the Mindset approach (e.g., Dweck, 2017), the Achievement Goal approach (e.g., Elliot, 2005), and the mastery motivation approach (Barrett & Morgan, 1995; Busch-Rossnagel & Morgan, 2013; Morgan,Harmon, & Maslin-Cole, 1990; J. Wang & Barrett, 2013).

The mastery motivation approach will be the focus of this book chapter and was first conceived by White (1959) who identified a nonhomeostatic desire for curious, playful engagement to interact with environments which he coined "effectance motivation".  White theorised that this motivation facilitated greater competence and a striving for the positive affect and emotional endstates associated with efficacy (White 1959).  In more contemporary investigations the work of (Barrett & Morgan 2018) views mastery motivation as multi-dimensional focusing on the ongoing persistent process to master something regardless of difficulty.

It is important to consider that mastery motivation is not bound to the achievement domain and often manifests in daily casual interplays and self-regulation processes and interactions within social and non-social environments.  Equally the focus is on competency and mastery as opposed to whether or not one succeeds.  This equates into a compulsion or volition to overcome moderate challenges by attempting various approaches to identify what is most useful.  As a result rather than garnering competence or knowledge in learning settings mastery motivation distinguishes itself as a motivational construct by promoting striving towards goal-directed problem solving and efficacy or mastery throughout all areas of development (Barrett & Morgan 2018).

Barrett & Morgan (2018) put forth that persons develop working models of their competence across domains and subdomains which are routinely updated from feedback in the environment.  Such working models are either procedural, declarative and conscious or outside awareness and adjust to particular domains.  As a consequence mastery motivation may be observed in context as a procedure one can develop and master and may have different flavours in different domains for the same individual (Wang & Barrett, 2013).

How behavioural activation facilitates motivation[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. The Behavioural Activation model

Clearly, garnering motivation is a complex task. Investigators have identified many clues in the complexity of how to rally motivational fuel to drive us towards our goals. This process is multi-dimensional and influenced by biopsychosocial and environmental factors. That said, there is clear evidence that making a start or activating a behaviour and monitoring our progress yields motivation (Sharot, 2014). When persons make a move towards a goal or get close to achieving it we appear to be hard wired to rally a boost of motivation to gain momentum towards goal attainment. It may be that if we consider activating behaviour as a skill in itself and an integral part of the motivational puzzle we will be more likely to make small incremental steps towards our goals that eventually mass into goal attainment this gives us a clue how to top up our motivational fuel tank along the way.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Now that you have some information about behavioural activation and associated theory here are some quiz questions to test your knowledge. Make your selections and

click "Submit" when you are ready:

1 One advantage of activiating your behaviour is ______

I will get an endorphin rush
I will stop being bored
provides some consistant evidence im doing some exercise
provides some concrete evidence i am moving towards my goals

2 Mastery motivation theory predicts that ______

We do every task perfectly every time and never fail
We engage in the ongoing persistent process to master something regardless of difficulty
Enjoy novel behaviours so much that we have an innate need to master them
Compete with each other to see who becomes the ultimate master

3 Activating behaviour towards a goal pursuit results in ______

More motivation in the middle part of the journey to achieving the goal
More motivation at the start of a goal
More motivation at both the beginning and the end of a goal pursuit
More motivation as we get closer to achieving the goal

Useful techniques for activating behaviour[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Implementation Intentions or IF...........THEN Plans + Coping Skills [Social Incentives + Positive Self Talk + Mindfulness Meditation][edit | edit source]

Figure 5. The implementation intentions formula

Implementation intentions or IF......PLANS may be a useful strategy to help activate behavior and maintain motivation. On a daily basis, it's easy to miss activating behaviour towards a desired goal, whether it be to engage in exercise, do the washing up, or meet an important deadline although we are not always going to get it perfect mastery motivational theory tells us we can expect to make noticeable improvements. Psychological investigators (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006) have identified a powerful technique to activate behaviour and move towards our goals called Implementation Intentions or the IF ..........Then plan.  Simply put IF situation Y happens then I will do X.  For example IF my wife gets up to go to gym THEN I will exercise myself. The trick is to associate your desired action on a situational cue such as an event location or time.  Implementation intentions are very clear, straightforward and directive they encourage you to explore future barriers to goal attainment.

You can make IF THEN plans more robust by being specific and realistic about the cues and behaviours you choose. Secondly, although useful for activating behaviours like exercise IF THEN plans are not so useful for breaking bad habits so be aware of this.  Lastly, you can supercharge your Implementation intentions by paring them with a coping strategy.

For example, we all struggle with doing tasks we don't like right? So pair your IF then plan with some Mindfulness Practice which will help regulate harmful or self-defeating emotions.  Get a friend to support you by arranging to do the activity with a friend. You're up to 50% more likely to practice something if you do it with somebody you have an emotional attachment with.   Finally, practice some positive self-talk, make a list of 3 positive things to say to yourself like––[I feel great when I put this into action].

Chaining tiny habits to previously established routines[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. The Tiny Habits Formula

BJ Fogg (2012) introduced the notion of 'tiny habits' to help people be more likely to achieve goal attainment. Chaining Tiny Habits to previously established routines is a powerful way to activate behaviour. Just think about all the routines you're currently in cleaning your teeth; having breakfast, cups of tea, coffee, having a shower and so on. These all present as previously established behaviour that has been hard-wired into your neural circuitry regularly occurring almost with robotic automation or an autopilot. Now imagine if you could activate a new behaviour by essentially piggybacking or chaining a new tiny habit to one that you have already mastered.

Bj Fogg suggests optimising our chance of generating automaticity involves sidestepping motivation and willpower all together which are reliably poor predictors of behaviour change in the long term.  How do we do this? By making the tiny habit so small and easy you practice it enough to consolidate automaticity.  In effect building on a tiny habit step at a time to move toward the outcome, you desire.  IT turns out that Tiny Habits need some motivation, ability and a trigger [In this case a well-established behaviour] to activate behaviour consistency. In effect, we come up with a formula that's similar to implementation intentions. After I [Existing Habit] I will [New Tiny Behaviour] For example After I go to the toilet I will do 2 push ups. Similarly After I have a cup of tea I will practice Mindfulness for 20 seconds. Fogg (2012) suggests that its essential to celebrate [positively reinforce] the tiny behaviour to increase the likelihood a habit forms.

Cue-induced behavior activation[edit | edit source]

Cue-induced behaviour is a construct taken from behavioural science and used in many theories of behaviour change and maintenance (Strombach, Strang, Park & Kenning, 2016).  The concept has been extensively covered in the addictions literature whereby environmental cues like seeing somebody smoking are thought to trigger addictive behaviour.  So after seeing someone smoke, I get a craving and become compelled to buy a packet of cigarettes (Mellentin, 2017).  Equally, cues to action have been implemented to activate healthy behaviour.  For instance, I want to drink more water, so I place a bottle of water on my desk to trigger me to drink.

The trick is to set up the environment to trigger activation of behaviour.  By setting up cues that trigger momentum towards a goal or endstate, we make it more likely we will think about and motivate ourselves to get going, keep moving and maintain our progress.  Think about our morning routines many of us get a cue from waking up to have breakfast clean our teeth and get ready for work.  For those of us that are trying to do some more exercise, we can leave our running shoes strategically in the house to trigger us to a walk. Likewise, we could set up some weights in different locations around our home to triggering us into doing some sets.

Techniques for maintaining motivation[edit | edit source]

Figure 7. Social incentives are a powerful motivator we all want to be like or better than others

[Provide more detail]

Social Incentives[edit | edit source]

Highlighting what other people are doing is a strong social incentive to activate behaviour towards similar goals.  Human beings are wired up as Social creatures, we feel compelled to learn what others are doing and more often than not we want to do the same or better.  For instance work by Micah Edelson (2011) established brain activation occurs when we hear about the opinions of others giving weight to the notion of how compelling social incentives are. For example, the British government edited a reminder letter for citizens to pay taxes on time.  Just by stating 9 out of 10 people pay their taxes on time in the message they were able to improve compliance by 15% garnering an additional 5.6 billion pounds to revenue (Sharot 2014). Social incentives provide social recognition for our successes but also seem to be a way of highlighting how cohesive social structures are. Further, social incentives appear to motivate us to make adjustments so that we are 'in sink' with our peers. This driver of motivation can be leveraged to help activate behaviour. Research has found that we are much more likely to engage in an activity if we are accompanied by someone we have a close relationship with. Indeed some investigators have found we are up to 50% more likely to activate behaviour when its paired with a social incentive (Heckhausen, & Heckhausen, 2018). For example studying or exercising with a friend.

Immediate rewards[edit | edit source]

In general two categories of benefit are received when chasing goals.  Firstly immediate rewards that arise while engaging the activity eg, the associated instant positive experience, and the deferred rewards that manifest at a point later in time being an outcome of moving towards the goals (McClure et al. 2004). Further, other researchers have found that persons view intrinsic incentives and immediate rewards as more appealing in the present than in the future (Woolley and Fishbach 2015).

It seems we really do value what we can reliably have now rather than be willing to wait for rewards in the future.  Additionally, immediate rewards leverage increased persistence towards our long-term goals (Woolley & Fishbach, 2016). How do we give ourselves immediate rewards? Mindfulness can be useful to help us engage in present moment awareness to be more attuned to pleasant experiences or activities.  We can develop scripts of positive self-talk eg, Well done your awesome, I feel simply stunning when i do this. Additionally we can give ourselves a healthy treat like an apple when studying  OR activity like socialising after exercise or meeting a deadline.

Progress monitoring[edit | edit source]

Motivation science has found that persistence increases as we get closer to attaining our goals similarly we invest more resources as we get closer to achieving the endstate we desire (Cheema and Bagchi 2011).  Interestingly, motivation to activate movement towards a goal declines about half way towards goal achievement and is at its most active at the beginning and end of a goal pursuit Louro et al. (2007). Progress monitoring is crucial because it indicates the importance of activating behaviour.

Have you ever heard the saying 'The start is the hardest part?' It may be that just through activating behaviour it is likely we will garner some motivation towards our goals. Likewise knowing we are likely to struggle in the middle of goal pursuit allows us to plan and consolidate other motivational skillsets like the previously mentioned to help mitigate pitfalls along the way.  IF we break down our goals into small steps we can leverage behaviour activation as "making a start" thus adding motivational fuel towards goal attainment.

Case Study[edit | edit source]

Case study

Bill strives to lose weight planing to exercise at least 3 times a week, but gets consumed by work deadlines; tells himself he cant afford the time, does not feel like it, or can't be bothered.

Bill leverages cue induced behavioural activation by leaving his weights in strategic positions around the house. He decides to chain early morning exercise to his wife's current routine by getting up with her in the morning and going for a walk.

He develops an IF Then Plan with Coping skills by saying to himself IF i see my weights around the house I will walk to them, pick them up and do at least 3 sets. Bills Coping plan is to use positive self talk & Mindfulness. He engages positive thoughts like: I can do this!, Go GO GO! Gotta move it to loose it! whilst practicing present moment breath awareness.

Bill generates social incentives by talking about his progress with his wife and friends. After some weeks of continued exercise Bill joins a bush walking club and enjoys talking about his progress and future aspirations.

Bill gives himself an immediate reward by reciting a list of positive self talk after completion of his goal like 'well done' 'keep going' ' Im[grammar?] feeling awesome' and from time to time plays some music to do a celebration dance!

Bill monitors his progress through a fitbit which gives him comprehensive information on the amount of exercise he has achieved

Bill maintains his motivation leading to much better results by engaging in exercise for up to 5 times per week and loosing 10kg over 15 weeks!

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Behavioural activation is a therapy derived from treatment for depression that can be applied to the general population as a health initiative. In this book chapter behavioural activation has been defined as any movement towards a desired goal or endstate which is consistent with behavioural activation treatment pedigree.

Many factors work in synergy with each other that yield motivation including striving for control, how goal engagement and disengagement is organised, individual differences, situations, volitional regulation and the environment.  Further, many different theories explain motivation.  Including the mastery motivation theory which focuses on the ongoing persistent process to master something regardless of difficulty.  

Some applied strategies where forwarded to help consistently activate behaviour including implementation intentions, chaining tiny habits and cue-induced behaviour. Equally, further strategies were suggested to help maintain motivation including social incentives, immediate rewards and progress monitoring.  

We have seen that motivation appears at its strongest at the beginning and end of goal-orientated behaviour.  This allows us to plan how best to get through the middle stages of working towards goal fulfilment and sheds light on why the use of the aforementioned coping strategies may be useful in activating behaviour and maintaining motivation.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Barrett & Morgan, 1995; Busch-Rossnagel & Morgan, 2013; Morgan,Harmon, & Maslin-Cole, 1990; J. Wang & Barrett, 2013 in Heckhausen, & Heckhausen, 2018

Cheema, A., & Bagchi, R. (2011). The Effect of Goal Visualization on Goal Pursuit: Implications for Consumers and Managers. Journal of Marketing, 75(2), 109-123. doi:10.1509/jmkg.75.2.109

Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-Determination Theory in Work Organizations: The State of a Science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4(1), 19-43. doi:10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108

Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset-updated edition: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Hachette UK. Robinson

Edelson, M., Sharot, T., Dolan, R. J., & Dudai, Y. (2011). Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity. Science, 333(6038), 108-111. doi:10.1126/science.1203557

Elliot, A. J. (2005). A conceptual history of the achievement goal construct. Handbook of competence and motivation, 16(2005), 52-72

Fogg, B. J. (2009). A behavior model for persuasive design. In Proceedings of the 4th international Conference on Persuasive Technology (p. 40). ACM.

Forget big change, start with a tiny habit: BJ Fogg at TEDxFremont [Video file]. (2012, December 5). Retrieved from

Frijda, N. H. (1988). The laws of emotion. American Psychologist, 43(5), 349-358. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.43.5.349

Heckhausen, H., & Rheinberg, F. (1980). Learning in the classroom revisited. Unterrichtswissenschaft, 8, 7-47

Heckhausen, H., Heckhausen, J.(2018). (Eds.), Motivation & Action (3rd ed). Irvine, CA: Springer.

Heckhausen, J., Wrosch, C., & Schulz, R. (2010). A motivational theory of life-span development. Psychological Review, 117(1), 32-60. doi:10.1037/a0017668

Kelly, M. P., & Barker, M. (2016). Why is changing health-related behaviour so difficult? Public Health, 136, 109-116.

Kuhl, J. (2000). A functional-design approach to motivation and volition: The dynamics of personality systems interactions. In M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Self-regulation: Directions and challenges for future research (pp. 111–169). New York: Academic Press

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K.M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111–131.

Mazzucchelli, T. G., Kane, R. T., & Rees, C. S. (2010). Behavioral activation interventions for well-being: A meta-analysis. The journal of positive psychology, 5(2), 105-121

McClure, S. M. (2004). Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards. Science, 306(5695), 503-507. doi:10.1126/science.1100907

Mellentin, A. I., Skøt, L., Nielsen, B., Schippers, G. M., Nielsen, A. S., Stenager, E., & Juhl, C. (2017). Cue exposure therapy for the treatment of alcohol use disorders: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 57, 195-207. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2017.07.006

O'Donohue, W., & Kitchener, R. (Eds.). (1998). Handbook of behaviorism. Elsevier.

Richter, M., Gendolla, G. H., & Wright, R. A. (2016). Three decades of research on motivational intensity theory: What we have learned about effort and what we still don't know. In Advances in motivation science (Vol. 3, pp. 149-186). Elsevier

Strombach, T., Strang, S., Park, S. Q., & Kenning, P. (2016). Common and distinctive approaches to motivation in different disciplines. In Progress in brain research (Vol. 229, pp. 3-23). Elsevier.

How to motivate yourself to change your behavior | Tali Sharot | TEDxCambridge [Video file]. (2014, October 28). Retrieved from

White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66(5), 297-333. doi:10.1037/h0040934

Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2016). For the fun of it: Harnessing immediate rewards to increase persistence in long-term goals. Journal of Consumer Research, 42, 952-966.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy–Value Theory of Achievement Motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68-81. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1015

External Links[edit | edit source]