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Behavior Change is a Gradual Process

September 2021

Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Distinguished Professor and Extension Financial Management Specialist Emeritus
Rutgers Cooperative Extension

The Rutgers Cooperative Extension Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ program is all about encouraging positive behavior change to improve health and personal finances. According to a leading theory, personal behavior changes, such as saving money and losing weight, take place in defined stages over a period of time.

This theory, called the Transtheoretical Model of Change, has been applied to a variety of behaviors including weight control, addictions (e.g., smoking) and changes in financial behavior (e.g., reduced spending).

According to the Transtheoretical Model, there are five major stages of change:

  • Pre-contemplation stage, where people may not even be aware that a problem (e.g., high debt load) exists or that a change should be made in their life.
  • Contemplation stage, where people gain knowledge about alternative behaviors and begin to understand ways to change (e.g., reduce spending).
  • Preparation stage, where people commit to make a change and gain required skills (e.g., taking a course in personal finance).
  • Action stage, where people “take the plunge” and actually change their behavior.
  • Maintenance stage, where people work to sustain their change and reap the rewards of their efforts (e.g., increased bank balance and lost weight).

The Transtheoretical Model also defines several major processes of change that relate to one or more of the behavioral change steps. In the pre-contemplation and contemplation stages, a key process is consciousness-raising or raised awareness. An example is that news stories about the benefits of saving small dollar amounts on a regular basis might cause a person to think, “I should save some money.”

The emotional arousal process is a sudden emotional experience related to a behavioral change that is experienced on a deep, feeling level. Emotional arousal is a powerful change agent whether the behavior being changed is drunk driving, lung cancer and smoking, or reducing interest costs by paying more than the minimum due on credit cards.

Self-reevaluation is another change process. This means thoughtfully assessing a problem and what could happen if your conquer it. In other words, imagining how your life could be better if you changed your behavior. For example, “If I start to save, I could have a better life when I am older.”

Commitment takes place during the preparation stage of change. Here, people acknowledge that “if it is to be, it’s up to me.” An example of commitment is “I will save $25 per paycheck.” At the action stage of change, countering is an important process. This means substituting a healthy response (e.g., saving $3 per day) for an unhealthy one (e.g., spending $3 on lottery tickets).

Another action stage process in environmental control. This means restructuring your environment to reduce the probability of a problem-causing event. An example is signing up for a mutual fund automatic savings plan (e.g., $50 per month) so money can be invested in fund shares before it is spent.

Personal change is hard and it doesn’t happen just because we want it to. Most successful changes require persistence, positive thoughts, and a strong support system. Are you ready to make changes in your health habits, interpersonal relationships, or finances? Additional information about the Transtheoretical Model of Change can be found in the book Changing For Good by Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente.