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The Secret Weapon to Modifying Behavior
by Stephanie Cirihal


Have you ever tried to change someone else's behavior, or even your own, with no success? You maybe even think you have the structure in place to do so, yet the unwanted behavior continues? Well, are you evaluating the behavior from a cause and effect viewpoint? You see, when we want to change a behavior, we have to evaluate it at the causal level - if we don't look at what leads to the behavior, and the consequences of the behavior, then we can never change it effectively. Many companies employ this behavior management methodology in safety programs - it is called A-B-C.

A = Antecedents for the behavior or what leads up to it. An antecedent always occurs before the behavior and affects the probability the behavior will or will not occur. Examples of antecedents include our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, as well as instructions, training, and behavior of others. Someone who does not wear their seatbelt, for instance may believe they will not be injured (antecedent).

B = Behavior, or an observable and measurable act (not wearing a seatbelt).

C = Consequences, or what follows the behavior. Consequences always occur after the behavior, and change the probability the behavior will occur in the future. If it does not change or affect future behavior, it is not a consequence for that behavior. Consequences affect behavior more than antecedents. Additionally, consequences have four types of impact:

  • Important / Unimportant (important ones are more powerful, i.e. $500 bonus is more important than praise from supervisor)

  • Positive / Negative (positive reinforcement is more powerful, i.e. praise versus criticism)

  • Immediate / Future (immediate consequences are more powerful, i.e. daily feedback versus monthly feedback)

  • Certain / Uncertain (certain consequences are more powerful, i.e. automatic buzzer sounding for errors versus reprimand which is uncertain)

To modify behavior using this methodology, follow these steps:

1. Pinpoint the behavior.

2. Identify all existing Antecedents for that behavior.

3. Identify all existing Consequences for that behavior.

4. For each consequence, rate if it is

a. Important or Unimportant

b. Positive or Negative

c. Immediate or Future

d. Certain or Uncertain for the behavior.

5. Modify the consequences to have the greatest impact on the behavior (Important, Positive, Immediate, And Certain are much more powerful than Unimportant, Negative, Future and Uncertain).

You might use this table, which contains an example behavior:

Behavior Antecedents Consequences
Not wearing a seatbelt

Believe won't
get hurt

Arrive safely w/o it





  In a hurry Injured in an accident
  Uncomfortable Comfortable
    Get a ticket for noncompliance

Using our seatbelt analogy, it is easy to see the positive, certain effects of feeling comfortable while driving can easily outweigh the more uncertain, future effects of being injured in an accident. To modify this behavior, some changes in the consequences and antecedents have been necessary, such as passing legislation requiring the use of seatbelts (which by the way is not as effective as coming up with a positive consequence).

This methodology works well whenever the behavior is actually being controlled by the consequences and antecedents and not other, stronger emotional triggers. It is an effective place to start when behavior modification is wanted, however, because it is relatively simple to analyze. If unsuccessful, either all the consequences and antecedents have not been identified or modified appropriately, or other emotional factors and drivers are at play.


The Author


Stephanie Cirihal is a professional, solution-oriented coach who develops human solutions for organizations and the people in them.

Many more articles in Coaching in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Stephanie Cirihal. All rights reserved.

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