The science of lasting change


You may think that making a long-lasting change, such as eating better or exercising often, is a matter of staying motivated and inspired. But scientific data say otherwise.

Motivation and inspiration “are temporary feelings,” says Sean Young, PhD, executive director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT). “We’ve been taught to think that if we’re not able to stick with good habits, we’re flawed or we don’t have enough willpower. But this isn’t what science says.”

A two-step process

According to Dr. Young, rather than focusing on the type of person you are, you need to apply a two-step process to changing your behavior.

This process requires you to:

1) Identify whether the behavior you want to change is A) automatic, B) burning or C) common.

  • Automatic behaviors occur without your awareness – for example, forgetting to stand up straight.
  • Burning behaviors refer to those that you’re aware of but feel like you can’t control. Needing to use digital devices all the time is one example.
  • Common behaviors refer to lifestyle habits, like the way you eat or how much you exercise.

2) Apply the correct strategies or “forces” to help you change and stick with the behavior. “I call them forces because we’re aware of physical forces that move an object, but there are also behavioral forces that move people,” explains Dr. Young.

Seven forces to help change your behavior

These forces are rooted in scientific research, says Dr. Young, who uses the acronym S.C.I.E.N.C.E. to describe them:

  • S = Step ladders: Tackle making a change in small, incremental steps.
  • C = Community: Find a supportive social environment.
  • I = Important: Make a change that is important to you.
  • E = Easy: Ensure the desired behavioral change is easy. For example, if you want to exercise more and your gym is difficult to commute to, you might try going for a walk in your neighborhood instead.
  • N = Neurohacks: Use quick mental shortcuts to behave in ways you didn’t before. Typically, if you engage in your desired behavior first, necessary motivation will follow. For example, don’t visualize going to the gym. Just go and then your desire to keep exercising will kick in.
  • C = Captivating rewards: Focus on captivating rewards to keep you engaged in the behavior. Better health or competing in a race may be examples that keep you engaged.
  • E = Engrained: Reinforce the behavior so it becomes routine. For example, exercising at the same time every day can engrain this behavior in your brain.

Which forces to apply to various behaviors

Easy and engrained forces are the most useful for changing automatic behaviors, says Dr. Young, followed by neurohacks and captivating rewards.

For burning behaviors, easy and engrained are the two most beneficial forces, followed by neurohacks and captivating rewards. The remaining forces may also be valuable, he says.

Community is the most effective force for changing a common behavior. Stepladders, important, easy, captivating rewards and engrained may also help you make a change. Neurohacks tend to be the least useful in this category.

Take the Next Step

To learn more about how Dr. Young is applying this approach to improving health, visit the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior.