Adding Value(s) to Behaviour Change Models

Many models and theories of behaviour change, from various disciplines of the social sciences, attempt to explain behaviour by investigating the stages of change. Stage models are particularly useful for understanding the different factors that may influence individual choice and behaviour at different points on their ‘journey’ towards adopting a particular behaviour. Most of these theories and models focus on the individual as the locus of behaviour; only some take into account the psychological context of behaviour change. This paper discusses the need to add personal values into the mix, when investigating mobility behaviour, and presents a framework and methodology for exploring personal values and their role in decision-making, travel mode choice and resistance to change.

01. Introduction


One of the first psychological theories applied to mobility behaviour change was the norm-activation model by Schwartz (1977). Later the very popular theory of planned behaviour by Ajzen (1991) was successfully used to explain behaviour change intention. Bamberg et al (2011) outlined the self-regulation theory´s stages of voluntary behaviour change and their determinants. This is similar to the MAXSEM model developed in the MAX project (Carreno & Welsch, 2006) which describes the four stages the individual goes through when a desired behaviour will be performed. The self-regulation theory posits that behavioural change is a transition through a time-ordered sequence of stages reflecting the cognitive and motivational difficulties people encounter. Whether at the stage of problem awareness and the associated feelings of responsibility, or evaluating the pros and cons of the new behaviour, or formulating a plan and acting on it, it is important that the behaviour change intervention is aimed at the right phase.

However, there are drawbacks to these models; they rely on individuals arriving independently at a voluntary intention to change, and they ignore the personal efforts required to undertake change, failing to take into account the deeply held values that affect every human behaviour.

McKenzie-Mohr (2011) summarises two approaches to behaviour change as the Attitude Behaviour approach and the Economic Self Interest Approach.

  • The former aims to bring about changes in behaviour by increasing public knowledge about an issue (such as climate change) and by fostering attitudes that are supportive of a desired activity (such as using public transport instead of the car). Such approaches include the provision of information and educational programmes. However, numerous studies document that information-based programmes have little or no effect on behaviour (Geller, E.S. 1981). A study into Healthy Eating campaigns came to the conclusion that public information campaigns have an impact on awareness and intention, but rarely on consumption patterns and health outcomes (Federico et al 2011).
  • The second approach – Economic Self Interest – uses the argument that it is in one’s financial best interest to change (e.g. installing insulation will save on energy bills). McKenzie-Mohr argues that this approach often fails to address the underlying barriers to change and has not proved successful. We are not predominantly rational beings, and much of the information we receive is processed unconsciously under the radar of our rational selves.

Behavioural economics has attempted to address this by studying how thinking and emotions affect individual economic decisions and the behaviour of markets as a whole. As explained by two of its foremost exponents: ‘Behavioural economics increases the explanatory power of economics by providing it with more realistic psychological foundations’. Camerer C., Loewenstein G. (2003). This means using research on human and social cognitive and emotional biases to better understand the rationality (or lack of it) of decisions made by individuals. The belief is that once we know more about why people behave as they do, we will begin to understand what might be preventing them from reaching these ‘optimal’ rational decisions.

In their book Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein (2008) compare our rational selves to Mr Spock and our impulsive unconscious system to Homer Simpson. A car-purchasing decision illustrates a good example of these two sides. Many campaigns for travel behaviour change target Mr Spock – providing facts about carbon emissions, giving information on alternative modes and arguments for rational decisions. But if such campaigns are to be a success they must appeal to the Homer Simpson in all of us.  

In this sense, there are lessons to be learned from the commercial world where market research and media advertising are used to promote products and services. Marketing techniques are used to focus on the consumer, learn what motivates them and try to alter their preferences. That is why car advertisements appeal to the Homer Simpson side, and to hidden values, when prompting us to make a choice.

Social marketing (Thøgersen, 2007) has adapted this approach and put it to use for bringing about social change and it can be used effectively in mobility behaviour change. It is an approach which identifies specific target audiences, their values, language, motivations and barriers, and designs an intervention based on this knowledge.

The challenge for changing mobility behaviour is to adopt a more holistic understanding of the values and motivations of individuals and of their behaviour. Bamberg et al (2011) may have got closer to the solution when they refer to the ‘ideal or ought self’ where a perceived discrepancy between the self and the ideal self results in a felt obligation to bring current behaviour more in line with important ‘self standards’. Insights into these ‘self-standards’ can bring about much more powerful behaviour change interventions which will fit with the values of the target audience, speak to them in their language and validate their choices.

According to Fitzgerald (1988), understanding, accessing and changing personal values will be difficult because values resist the usual forms of investigation. The classical tools of research – observation, classification and measurement – do not work because values do not exist as isolated, independent entities. Many people are unable to access, let alone articulate, their own deeply held values. Attempts by others to change these values meet with resistance.

However, all is not lost! A theory developed within the realm of clinical psychology has been used successfully in the field of mobility behaviour to access deeply-held personal values and use this understanding to bring about behaviour change. The Theory of Personal Constructs (Kelly, 1963) brings together the question of how values are formed, structured and inter-related; how values differ from individual to individual and how they come to be shared; how values resist change and how they can change and be replaced. This theory is supplemented with tools and techniques to enable the reseacher to elicit, measure and understand values and resistance to change.

02. Personal Construct Theory

Personal Construct Theory (PCT) was developed by Kelly, beginning in the 1930s. As a clinical psychologist, he felt that the clinical science of psychology, as it was developing at the time,was actually standing in the way of understanding his clients. He encountered problems which, as suggested by Stewart and Stewart (1981), are common to researchers in industry today, and developed tools and techniques to overcome these :

  • Kelly felt that the clinical expertise of therapists was over-rated, and that most people were mature enough to know what was wrong with them and to take responsibility for it. In this sense, his theory, as a precursor to the person centred humanistic approach, was very much ahead of its time. Kelly believed that we all are scientists trying to make sense of our world, conducting our own experiments and testing hypotheses. Each one of us is an expert on ourselves. The techniques of personal construct psychology allow the therapist/researcher to draw out a mental map of the situation in such a way that the client can interpret the problem, and find the solution.
  • Correlational studies had produced laws about human behaviour, e.g., links between smoking and extroversion, based on large samples of people. Kelly felt that this did not allow him to make predictions when facing an individual. He wanted to make predictions about clients in a rigorous way; to measure their clinical problems before therapy, use these measurements in therapy and measure again after therapy. He devised the repertory grid as a way of doing this.
  • Observer bias was also of concern to Kelly. It can pose a serious obstacle to understanding someone else’s point of view. The elicitation techniques of PCT enables one to interview someone in detail, and elicit information with as little observer bias as possible.

Kelly (1963) developed his theory from the premise of ‘man the scientist’, who develops hypotheses, tests and modifies or discards them, developing a network of ‘constructs’ or values along the way. This framework of personal constructs is what we use to give meaning to events, situations and people (which Kelly called elements) and to make predictions about the future. Our constructs are so called because they have been built up or constructed from experience, and also because we use them to ‘construe’ or interpret the world. We anticipate events, using our construct systems, and determine our behaviour accordingly. If our behaviour is invalidated our experiment has failed, and so we experiment with new behaviour (Dalton and Dunnett, 1992).

Kelly (1963) also believed that our value systems (or construct systems) are arranged in a pattern. This helps us to avoid making contradictory predictions. Constructs may be seen as organised in a hierarchy with subordinate constructs at the bottom, linking with superordinate constructs above, which in turn link with core beliefs about the self at the top.

Dalton and Dunnett (1992) compare the construct system to scaffolding. Constructs are linked together in ordinal relationships, like the spars of the scaffolding. The relationships between constructs work up and down as well as laterally so a single highly abstract construct at the top may be related to many more concrete constructs at the bottom, with various levels in between. The core constructs are those which a person uses to maintain his/her identity and existence. They are comprehensive and central to the individual’s view of self and his/her social roles. Core constructs are less accessible and cannot be changed or altered easily.

The Techniques of Personal Construct Psychology

The construct is the basic unit of one’s construct system. It is a form of differentiation between elements, and is bi-polar. These poles are contrasts which make sense to the individual (Dalton and Dunnett, 1992). The job of the therapist, counsellor or researcher is to elicit these bi-polar constructs in a non-directive way. To elicit constructs, the researcher asks the interviewee to differentiate between the elements chosen, depending on the context. (In the context of travel behaviour change, the elements may be the various modes of travel available to the individual). Using diadic or triadic eliciting, the interviewee construes the elements and states the differences between them, e.g. convenient, fast, etc. The interviewer then probes for the contrast poles – in an non-directive way, using credulous listening, – and the outcome is a bi-polar construct which the individual uses to discriminate between elements (Stewart and Stewart, 1981). For example, the difference between using the bus to travel to work and using the car is the journey time. The  bi-polar construct would be: Quick journey time  –  slow journey time

Constructs elicited in this way may be located anywhere in the individual’s construct system. Further elicitation techniques known as laddering and pyramiding allows the individual to explore his/her construct system, drawing out more superordinate or subordinate constructs (Dalton and Dunnett, 1992). The process of laddering explores the more superordinate constructs which are less easy to express. Laddering consists of first establishing the preferred pole of the construct for the individual and then asking why that pole is preferred or why it is more important (Stewart and Stewart, 1981). In this case, the preferred pole may be quick journey time, and the reasons given may be getting to work on time, getting more done.

Kelly stated that ‘A person chooses for him- or her self that alternative in a dichotomized construct through which he or she anticipates the greater possibility for extension and definition of his or her system’. This proposes that we draw on our dichotomized constructs to decide on one course of action over another. The first point to emphasize is that choice here is not to be seen as a conscious and deliberate choosing of one line of action over another; it is likely to be unarticulated and pre-verbal. A second point is that individuals do not choose between logical alternatives, but between the alternatives that they see as open to them. In all cases, people make what Kelly termed “the elaborative choice”: that which gives them a better position from which to anticipate future events.

Having established the preferred pole of the dichotomised construct, the researcher may use ‘laddering’ to elicit even more superordinate constructs until core constructs are reached which may have something to do with self-actualisation or freedom, For example:

  1. Quick journey time  –  slow journey time
  2. Getting to work on time
  3. Getting more done
  4. Achieving goals

Usually an individual will have very few core constructs and the laddering process will lead to the same outcome each time (Stewart and Stewart, 1981).

Using the processes of elicitation described above, one can uncover a large part of an individual’s construct system without observer bias. Because the interviewer plays no part in suggesting the responses, the elicited constructs are a reflection of how the individual sees the world. Kelly developed the repertory grid technique to inquire into this pattern of constructs or cognitive processes, to look at how an individual uses a set of constructs in relation to one another and in relation to a given set of elements (Dalton and Dunnett, 1992). Instead of regarding each construct as a pair of words, Kelly (1955) proposed the notion of psychological space between the poles of the construct. He found that people could easily position elements within that space. Fransella and Bannister (1977) compare this format with the semantic differential devised by Osgood (1957) warning that the underlying theory and assumptions are different. In keeping with the belief that we are all scientists conducting our own experiments, repertory grid technique seeks to understand the dimensions which the subject uses to make sense of his/her world. The individual is not an object, but a theoriser, an experimenter, and a constructor of meanings just as the researcher is. The grid is more like a conversation than a psychological test; an attempt to enable the subject to present his/her own construing of the elements in such a way that they can be understood.

These eliciting and measuring techniques can be adapted for use with individuals and groups in order to understand mobility behaviour.

03. Resistance to Change

Personal Construct Theory can also be used to understand and explain the reactions produced when people are faced with change, such as anxiety, fear, threat, guilt and denial. In the context of travel behaviour, these may be exemplifed as follows:

Anxiety is described in personal construct terms as the recognition that the events with which one is confronted lie outside the range of one’s construct system (Kelly, 1955). A person’s construct system is applicable only to a given range of events (elements). When a new element lies outside this range, the individual is unable to construe it in any meaningful way. When individuals resist changing their mode of travel, it could be that they are being asked to construe an event/element for which their construct systems are unprepared. Hence they experience anxiety.

Strong resistance to change may occur when people are asked to change their superordinate or core constructs. Core constructs are described by Bannister and Fransella (1971) as those which we use to try to understand ourselves and to evaluate the central aspects of our own behaviour; the personal issues with which we are most concerned; the ways in which we try to anticipate our own future behaviour. Enforced change of one’s core constructs can produce fear or threat. Fear in personal construct terms is described as the awareness of an imminent incidental change in one’s core constructs while threat is the awareness of an imminent comprehensive change. Epting (1984) explains the difference between fear and threat in that people feel threatened in situations that may change them in such a way that they are to become something quite different from what they believe themselves to be. Fear is produced when the imminent change is not as comprehensive; when less of the core structure is involved.

When forced to change, people may find themselves behaving in a way which is incongruent with the perceptions they have of themselves. This is often referred to as cognitive dissonance, described by Aronson (1994) as a state of tension that occurs whenever an individual simultaneously holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent. This may produce a variety of reactions. In personal construct terms, this perception of one’s apparent dislodgement from one’s core role structure constitutes guilt (Kelly, 1955). Since our core constructs serve to maintain our sense of integrity and identity, guilt occurs when we find that the things we are doing are discrepant from what we take ourselves to be. In summary:

  • Anxiety – No constructs to understand the situation
    • How do I buy a ticket? How will I recognise my destination?
  • Fear – Awareness of incidental change
    • buying the wrong ticket, getting on the wrong train; – feeling stupid!
  • Threat – Awareness of comprehensive change
    • Physical inadequacy, unable to climb steps of tram
  • Guilt – Dislodgement
    • Getting lost, being late, letting people down;

According to Bamberg et al (2011), where there is a perceived discrepancy between the self and the ideal self this should result in a felt obligation to bring current behaviour more in line with important ‘self standards’. If needs such as achieveing goals or not letting people down are not being served by the current mode of travel (e.g. slow journey time), the mode of travel will be changed to one which offers a quick journey time and which in turn supports an important core construct and ‘self-standard’. Understanding this process is essential to understanding resistance to change and when designing behaviour change interventions.  

Obviously, some behaviour change interventions are of an enforcement nature, e.g. regulations controlling access, parking, etc., and individuals find themselves having to adapt their behaviour accordingly, and in opposition to their core constructs. In order to deal with the emotions brought about by enforced change, people try to justify their behaviour. Aronson (1994) makes the point that most people feel that their beliefs should be consistent with their behaviour and are motivated to justify their behaviour when it is inconsistent with a pre-existing belief. Such self-justification is the result of dissonance  reduction, which Aronson describes as ego-defensive behaviour.

While it helps us to maintain a positive image of ourselves, it can be maladaptive and prevent us from learning important facts or finding solutions to problems. Such behaviour is referred to as hostility in personal construct terms and can be explained as the ‘continued effort to extort validational evidence in favour of a type of prediction which has already proved itself a failure’ (Kelly, 1955). E.g continuing to drive to work (quick journey time) but wasting time looking for a parking space. 

We could also place here the climate change deniers ……..

Personal change and resistance to such change may be better understood when taking into account the relative importance of the constructs on which change is required. Hinkle (1965) developed the resistance-to-change grid to test the hypothesis that superordinate constructs would be more resistant to change than subordinate ones.

In the Resistance to Change Grid, subjects are presented with every possible pair of the elicited constructs and asked to consider a situation in which they would have to move from their preferred pole to the unpreferred pole on one of the constructs in the pair. The construct on which they choose to move is less resistant to change.

  1. Being Reliable _____________________  Letting people down
  2. Achieving goals ____________________ Failing to achieve

In the example given, the subject may choose construct 1 as the one on which they would be prepared to change. That is, they would rather give up being reliable (and let peple down) and still be able to achieve, rather than give up achieving and retain reliability. This process is repeated comparing all possible pairs of constructs. The more a construct resists change the more superordinate it is likely to be (Fransella and Bannister, 1977).

A 3-stage model of Behaviour Change

Applying PCT to behaviour change, we can see a 3-stage model. Kelly described the process of decision-making as the CPC Cycle: “a sequence of construction involving Circumspection, Preemption, and Control, and leading to a choice which precipitates the person into a particular situation“.(Kelly, 1955, pp 379-390/Vol. 1, pp 261-263/Vol. 2).

  • Circumspection is the stage in which we consider alternatives propositionally, from a variety of angles.
  • In the preemption stage, we select what we believe to be the critical alternative and eliminate the other options.
  • Finally, in the control phase we choose the alternative action through which we anticipate the greater possibility for extension or definition of our construct system.

In everyday terms, Kelly may appear to be doing little more than describing decision-making as a process of considering options, choosing one, and making something happen, but this simplification ignores the difficulty many of us regularly experience in moving smoothly through the stages of change. Our choices validate or define or may even extend our construct system; alternatives which would restrict or invalidate it are avoided.

“That is to say, a person always chooses in that direction in which he anticipates will increase the total meaning and significance of his life.” (Hinkle, D. 1965)

The circumspection phase may be bypassed if we decide preemptively, considering too few alternatives. We may also find ourselves exercising maximum control by choosing from a constricted range of possibilities rather than opening our minds to new ideas; this may be a way of dealing with the anxiety and threat involved when faced with change. Alternatively, if we consider more options and more variations, the preemption stage becomes difficult; the more we consider, the more implications and possibilities emerge. Staying in circumspection too long holds us well back from any form of action.

A reasonable balance of circumspection and preemption allows us to assume control– to design and undertake an appropriate behavioural experiment. A clear choice and robust experimental design are the features of the control phase. We aim to elaborate our predictive system through action, but we also need to maintain its essential features, rather than find ourselves thrown into chaos.

04. Conclusions

What makes PCT different than other psychological models? Epting. & Paris (2006) see him as putting forth the only thorough pragmatic theory of psychology. Kelly disavowed any attempt to describe construct theory as a cognitive, behavioural, existential, or even a humanistic theory. Just as he refused to categorise his subjects and put them ‘in a box’, so also does his theory deny categorisation. He had a set of exclusions: no concept of self or ego, no typology of psychological traits, no notion of developmental stages, no set of basic needs and no notion of an unconscious.

“It is not only that these terms are abandoned; what is more important, the concepts themselves evaporate. If the reader starts murmuring such words to himself, he can be sure he has lost the scent”. (Kelly, 1963)

If we can avoid putting people in boxes, and approach behaviour change with an open mind and credulous listening, believing that each individual is conducting their own experiments in support of their construct system, we may have a greater chance of succeeding.

Personal Construct Theory provides a tried and tested framework for understanding behaviour and resistance to change, as well as a valuable toolkit to enable researchers to gain insights into this area. Its eliciting and measuring tools and techniques help us to understand how people construe their world, what values are important to them and what their aspirations are, how they see themselves and how they want to be, how they make decisions and how they resist change. Such insights are a prerequisite for behaviour change campaigns and interventions and have been used to successfully bring about behaviour change in sustainable mobility projects. The following case studies show how the framework and techniques of PCT were used successfully in mobility behaviour campagns.

05. Case Study 1 – TAPESTRY 2003

Dublin Bus’s strategy to improve the service quality on a particular route was being seriously undermined and threatened by vandalism and poor passenger numbers. So, what exactly was the trouble? 

The trouble was that local kids didn’t respect the bus. Our challenge was to reposition Dublin Bus in the minds of young people so that they respected it as a valuable service in their community, and not a place to smoke, slash the seats and practice their graffiti skills. And, in turn, ensure that the rest of the community would perceive taking the bus as a safe and pleasant mode of transport and would be more inclined to do so.

First, Interactions conducted research with residents along the route. Having established that vandalism and safety fears were inextricably linked, we then embarked on extensive qualitative and quantitative attitudinal research with local school children. Applying the specialist eliciting techniques and tools of PCT, we discovered that the kids fostered a sense of being ‘hard done by’ by figures of authority, from teachers to the Gardaí, and crucially bus drivers – which in the children’s eyes justified the vandalism perpetuated on the Route. Our other key finding indicated the children’s innate need for validation and recognition; and their desire to ‘Make One’s Mark’, hence the prevalence of graffiti on the buses.

Position Dublin Bus as a feature of the local community that treats kids with fairness, exhibits a concern for their safety, and genuinely cares for them – all needs that kids identified in our research. And, in turn, the kids will care for their bus service. Analyses of the repertory grids showed the following optimal positioning of the bus company relative to other figures of authority.

Figure 3 – Principal Component Analysis of positioning of bus company


We satisfied these needs by creating a campaign that demonstrated Dublin Bus’s commitment to the local community; one where school children could redirect their artistic skills away from graffitiing bus seats and into other areas like art, poetry or songs, all interpreted through the broad theme: ‘How the Bus Is Useful To Me’. Not only was there a prize-giving ceremony, but the winning entries featured in the Dublin Bus Corporate Calendar and graced the limelight by appearing on in-bus posters and on bus shelters. 






A lot of very happy kids. And a lot of very happy local residents, who started taking the bus in greater numbers in the knowledge that the kid sitting beside them loved the bus just as much as they did. Dublin Bus was happy too. Not only were they saving thousands of euro in the costs of vandalism, but passenger numbers on the Route saw a significant increase.







06. Case Study 2 – CIVITAS Plus 2011

In 2011 Tallinn was the European Capital of Culture. Their buses and trams would be welcoming foreign visitors from all over the world. However, first there were challenges closer to home, with the city’s population harbouring negative perceptions of public transport. How do we get citizens to engage with sustainable transport options when all they see are the negatives associated with taking the bus or tram?

Initial research in 2010 laid bare the true extent of those negative perceptions, with respondents citing anti-social passenger and driver behaviour, as well as low satisfaction with levels of cleanliness and comfort as the main barriers to using public transport. Interactions extracted insights from this research that shaped the focus for the solution; this started by directing resources only at those consumers who had indicated that they would be willing, and most likely, to consider sustainable transport in the future. We knew our best chance of success was to preach to those most open to conversion.

Armed with our insights we used the tools and techniques of PCT to gain a deeper understanding of these consumers – what were their values and motivations? We discovered that they tend to be less conservative and more creative, with an interest in arts and culture. Tapping into the fact that Tallinn was the European Capital of Culture, we proposed an attention-grabbing campaign that incorporated these exact values. It was called ‘knitting graffiti’ and involved wrapping the interior of a public bus, including the seats and rails, in colourful knitting. An entire bus, as soft and inviting as a warm scarf on a cold Tallinn day.

Consumers adored it! Here was a campaign that took ‘attention grabbing’ to a whole new level, daring to be wonderfully creative and experiential, as well as provoking, and in turn, deeply engaging our target. The results were staggering, with double-digit increases in satisfaction levels associated with taking the bus. Once again, we have demonstrated that behaviour change is possible with the right insights and solutions.

Eileen O’Connell

Eileen is Managing Director and a founding partner of Interactions Ltd. She has many years’ experience of qualitative and quantitative research, specialising in transport, sustainable mobility and behaviour change. With expertise in researching the needs, values and motivations of societal groups, she specialises in providing insights for behaviour change initiatives using segmentation techniques to identify potential to change, resistance to change, and how to overcome resistance. She has extensive involvement in EU-funded transport and mobility projects, such as TAPESTRY, PARTNER, CIVITAS, METPEX and EVIDENCE, with responsibility for communications, dissemination, evaluation and user needs research.

Interactions Ltd, Unit 2, Beech Court, Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

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