Behaviors Can Serve Many Functions

(4 min read)

Those of us in the business of helping people reach their fitness goals know that having great knowledge to share is just one aspect of behavior change.

In addition to explaining to clients ‘the what’ that they need to know, we need to help them on “the how” to do it. Otherwise, our clients would execute everything we suggest and see immediate results.

So, what is holding them back?

Invariably they have some long-standing habits/behaviors that are also impeding their progress. Foods or other lifestyle options that are not serving them well. There is a litany of good suggestions available to share regarding eating healthier, moving more, and increasing mindfulness regarding stress, relationships and overall health.

When it comes to behavior change, it’s important to remember:

Every behavior serves a function.

And until we identify what the root cause of that behavior is, we are just providing our best guess at the most effective lifestyle strategies to produce results or at least maintain them.

To recap, behavior typically serves one of 4 functions and we here at the Healthy Behavior Institute use the acronym EATS to remember them.

E- Escape

A- Access to Attention

T- Access to Tangibles

S- Sensory Stimulation


But wait, there is more!

Another important facet to consider when looking at behavior function is that one behavior can serve multiple functions.

Your clients may nail a pint of Ice cream on a random Wednesday night to soothe and escape a rough day, whereas they may get ice cream on a weekend with their children to share a special time or celebrate. If we simply say reduce ice cream intake or replace it with a healthier alternative that may work for those emotional escape moments but less practical for the bonding time with children.

So, recommending a series of replacement behaviors for those evenings of escape will help reduce the negative nutritional impact of the ice cream, but may do little to support the feeling of connection with family on the weekends.

So, the same behavior may need two vastly different recommendations. Time with family at the ice cream shop may be best exchanged, at least occasionally, with another activity such a trip to the park, bowling or other shared experience.

In other words,

if it looks like a duck, acts like a duck it still might NOT be a duck….

Let’s explore another common example, alcohol consumption. Let’s say you have a client that has several drinks a night during the week. But they also drink a few with friends on the weekend.

You know that all this alcohol is not helping their waistline or their health and wellness goals. It might be tempting to tell them to cut back on the drinks, as they probably should. But you have undoubtedly done that before to no avail.

You might have seen them go a week or two without any, or really see it diminish only to see It come back. Undoubtedly the drinking is serving different functions and needs replacement behaviors that match them.  Escape from loneliness, for example, may need some mindfulness to reach out to friends, engage in hobbies or join new groups to keep them alternately engaged in the evenings. Whereas social drinking may serve as an attention function (feeling of belonging) and maybe best served with suggestions for mocktails or lower alcohol/calories than current choices.

As is probably evident by now, sustained behavior change requires several levels.  As mentioned previously, all behavior serves a function for those engaged in it. That same behavior can serve different functions for different people and can serve more than one function within the same person

I am not suggesting that you get your advanced degree in behavioral psychology, but if you want to create dramatic and sustainable results for your clients, education in this area is a necessity. The Weight Loss Behavior Coaching Certification will help awareness of the key steps in behavior change and take you far in providing more effective and sustainable recommendations to your clients.