Contextual disruptions and behavioral change: starting and stopping

Behavioral change is a complex and challenging process that plays a central role in many aspects of life, from health to productivity and sustainability. Researchers Gail McMillan, Marina Milyavskaya, and Rachel J. Burns have recently explored this topic, with a focus on how contextual changes can influence the potential for behavior change. Their study sheds new light on behavior change, providing interesting insights that may be useful to individuals and policymakers.

Theoretical framework: the influence of contextual disruptions

The research team has focused on the role of contextual disruptions, such as moving to a new home or changes in daily routines, in facilitating behavioral change. They invoke the discontinuity hypothesis. It states that when the usual contextual cues are absent, the associated behaviors can be reduced, and new links between cues and behaviors can be formed.

In addition, they explored the self-activation hypothesis, which states that individuals are more likely to try alternative behaviors during contextual perturbations, especially those that are more aligned with their goals.

The study: behavior in the face of COVID-19

The researchers used the COVID-19 pandemic, a global contextual disruption, as the basis for their study. They asked the participants what behavior they wanted to change after this major disruption, and they examined the characteristics of this behavior. They focused on three categories of behavior:

  1. new behavior (that one wanted to start after the disturbance)
  2. unwanted behavior (that one wanted to stop)
  3. potential habitual behavior (behavior that one wants to avoid becoming a habit)

Results: new behavior vs. undesirable behavior

Interestingly, there were more participants who reported starting new behaviors (73.2%) than those who wanted to reduce unwanted behaviors (63.3%). Even fewer participants reported having at least one behavior they wanted to avoid becoming a habit (36.1%). In addition, new behaviors were seen as more autonomously motivating, less automatic, and less difficult to change, as well as less important to change than undesirable or potentially habitual behaviors.

Conclusion: starting is easier, stopping and prevention are more important

Together, these results suggest that engaging in new behavior feels inherently more positive than trying to stop unwanted behavior or preventing behavior from becoming a habit, despite the greater importance placed on the latter two categories. (Also read: From Laughing to Learning: Dr. Switzer Wasn't Completely Wrong).


The study shows that there are different processes at work in 'starting' new behaviors versus 'stopping' unwanted ones. This has implications for the kinds of interventions that may be required to change these different types of behaviors.

The authors believe that mindfulness can help break these unwanted habits. This involves consciously considering the short-term negative consequences of these unwanted behaviors, such as feeling restricted or lacking autonomy, frustration, regret, or physical discomfort (for example, the taste of cigarettes or the feeling of discomfort after eating too much).

By being aware of these negative experiences, we can better understand why we would want to stop these habits. A contextual disruption could be supportive to also stopping and preventing unwanted behaviors.