Behavior is exceedingly complex. In fact, there isn’t a single behavioral model out there that can predict behavior with 100% accuracy. The meaning behind behavior can be thought of at various levels of abstraction. For example, A person taking the stairs may think in many ways including:

“I’m taking the stairs to get to my office” – this is very concrete, focused on the immediate.

“I’m taking the stairs to improve my health”- this is more abstract, focused on the future.

Abstract thinking reflects higher order goals or values. Values are the one thing that gives meaning to behavior and if identified may be able to make a behavior more likely to occur.

All humans have a value system that contains different types of values of varying importance. Value prioritization is intimately linked with a person’s sense of identity.

While values stay the same throughout a lifetime, the weight that a person puts on a value can change overtime. Listen to the following story for elaboration:

Tim was going to pick up his kids at the City Library when a thunderstorm struck. As he approached he searched his pockets for cigarettes but found he was out.

He thought he could drive to the store quickly to grab cigarettes.

As Tim made this decision he saw his kids walk out of the library into the rain. He thought to himself ‘I could get to the store before the kids get seriously wet’.

This view of himself as a father who would let his kids sit in a thunderstorm even for a second was so humiliating that at that moment he quit smoking.

The man’s name is fictional but the story is true (Premack 1970). In this case ‘Tim’ valued fulfilling the urge to smoke. But, being a father, he also valued family.

These two values likely weren’t problematic until they clashed.

When his value for urge fulfillment impacted how he expressed his value for family, the value for family won out.

Values can be a powerful source of motivation for behavior. So how can it be used advantageously?

If you have a health goal, identifying the value that the goal is connected to necessitates asking why the behavior is important.

Values are great for their emotional appeal. Think of the Tim’s emotional experience. When faced with whether or not to enact value-based behavior in certain situations, it is also useful to have a logical justification for why the value is important to you. Finally, how can we increase the weight of importance of health as a life value?

Value Identification

In a highly cited paper on Control Theory, Charles Carver and Michael Scheier highlight different levels of thought abstraction.

The main levels of thought abstraction included the following (1) system concept, (2) principle, (3) program and (4) relationship.

In the info-graphic below notice how returning notes (the program) is done by driving (relationship). Levels of abstraction become more ‘concrete’ as a person moves down the ladder.

Carver and Scheier contend that many people operate on the program level of abstraction. Meaning they only think about ‘how’ a behavior occurs. They don’t think about ‘why’ they do the behavior.

Identifying the ‘why’ is fairly easy in concept. Just reverse the process and ask the question why. Why would someone return notes? They are doing that to follow through on a commitment.

Why is following through on the commitment important? Following through on a commitment reflects the persons self-identity as responsible.

Try this exercise with any health goal. For example, to lose 30 pounds. Why is this important (find the principle). Why is the principle important? (find the system concept).

Value Rationalization

People may consider particular values to be important because of the strong positive feelings attached to values.

But when faced with challenges and situations to express the values they may not follow through because they don’t have strong rationalizations for the value.

The lack of rationale for values may inhibit behaviors that would express the value.

Whatever your value is, as it relates to health behaviors or reaching a health goal think of a good rationalization for why the value is important.

The reasons for some people might be implicit but not so much for others. For example, a grandmother could weakly justify exercising saying it will help with her weight loss goal.

Or she could strongly rationalize the behavior by saying it will help her be around to see her grandchildren grow up.

Increasing weight of Values

As previously mentioned, values are universal concepts. People have several core values. One way to strengthen health behaviors is to link health behaviors to other strong values.

For example, it is easy to see how exercising four times per week is in service to the health value.

However, the line is a little bit less clear how exercising four times per week might connect to other values like career ambition, responsibility, or leadership. However, a link can be made with a little introspection.

For the person with career ambition, exercise can be a way to keep a clear head and also a way to avoid getting sick. For the person who values being responsible, exercise is a way to take care of t


Behavior is complex so it would be naïve to say that simply identifying and rationalizing values is the only thing a person needs to do to be successful.

However, values clearly give meaning to behaviors. When a person changes anything, there will be struggles. If a behavior doesn’t have a clear-cut meaning then why would a person continue in the face of challenges?

By giving meaning to behavior, enduring through the change process is done in service of something that is personally meaningful and relevant.



Premack D. In: Learning Mechanisms in Smoking. Hunt WA, editor. Aldine; Chicago: 1970. pp. 107–123.