When you are making health decisions, the notion that you have complete control over your behavior is actually semi-delusional.

I say “semi” because of course if you really really want to do something or if you really really don’t want to do something, your behavior will probably fall in line with your attitudes.

It’s also only semi-delusional because once you realize you are not 100% in control of your own behavior you can start making changes to make better health choices.

If you want to learn about how to set yourself up for successful, less stressful, and more automatic health behaviors keep reading.


In 1990, then Arizona State professor Robert Cialdini along with his colleagues Raymond Reno and Carl Kallgreen, published a paper on littering.

You’re likely thinking, “what in world could 27-year old paper on littering possible teach us about human health behavior?”

Well, for one, this paper happened to be the impetus for my master’s thesis on resistance training behavior so bare with me.

Researchers put flyers on cars and then hid in a parking garage and watched their unknowing participants (yes, although this is harmless it also sounds creepy, I know).

There were four different conditions that the researchers created. In half of the conditions the parking lot was a mess, covered with trash.

Also in half of the cases, participants either observed a person litter or throw away their trash. So, the conditions were as follows:

  • Condition 1: environment littered, participant watched a litterer
  • Condition 2: environment littered, participant watched a person throw trash away
  • Condition 1: environment not littered, participant watched a litterer
  • Condition 2: environment not littered, participant watched a person throw trash away

Here is what happened:

People tended to litter way more in a pro littering environment and they littered even more in that environment when they watched someone else do it!

Interestingly the trend was the opposite (although did not reach significance) when they watched someone litter in an anti-littering environment.

So, what does this have to do with health and fitness?

We tend to behave in ways that are conducive to how other people behave and also the environment influences our actual behavior.

Case in point, if you’re out to dinner and everyone orders a salad are you more or less likely to order a salad?

If you’re out to dinner and everyone else orders dessert, are you more or less likely to order dessert?

The answer is you’re getting dessert.

What other people do, or what the environment pressures us to do are just two of sources of behavioral influence.

There just so happens to be four more sources.

Sources of Influence

In the book “Change Anything” David Maxfield, Joseph Grenny, and Kerry Patterson write about personal, social, and structural barriers to behavior. Each of these barriers has either motivational or ability components.

The dessert example demonstrates the interaction of social influence and motivation.

If a person has low motivation to eat healthy and it is socially acceptable to indulge in a dessert they will do so.

Likewise, even if they were motivated to not eat dessert and all of their friends were eating dessert they would be hard pressed to avoid falling in line.

So, we have the following

  • Personal and motivational interactions
  • Personal and ability interactions
  • Social and motivation interactions
  • Social and ability interactions
  • Structural and motivation interactions
  • Structural and ability interactions

Keep reading to learn how to use these six sources of influence to your advantage.

Personal and Motivational Interactions

Link behavior to life missions or values

I write about this all the time, in fact it’s why I am spending the next four years of my life working on a doctoral degree.

We don’t stick with things that we think suck (at least initially) like running or not eating a mountain of candy UNLESS the suckiness means something!

Whenever people create a weight loss or fitness goal they usually talk about HOW to achieve their goal.

Most people never care to think about why a new year’s resolution is important to them. It’s just that time of the year again and it’s something they know they should do.

But then life, happens, motivation wains and we give up. There’s always next year.

But when we identify how a certain behavior will help us live up to our life mission or helps us live up to a personal value we’re more likely to keep doing the behavior even when it gets challenging.

I have written extensively on the topic here, here, and here.

Personal and Ability Interactions

Increase confidence by improving skills

In a paper on behavior change, Susan Michie writes that goal directed behaviors occur when someone has the opportunity, is motivation, and is competence.

Competence is ability.

Even if we are super motivated and have all the opportunity in the world to engage in a health behavior we don’t stand a chance if we don’t believe we have the ability to do it.

Ability or belief in one’s own ability is discussed at length in several major behavioral theories including social cognitive theory and the theory of planned behavior.

Now you can do TWO things to improve ability and confidence.

One of those things is practice. The thought of going to the gym might be terrifying, it might seem outside of your capabilities but I will be the first to tell you it isn’t.

You can do it.

Experience is actually the strongest source of confidence. If we do something our confidence tends to increase with practice.

The other thing you can do is reduce the challenge of the task. If you’re 90% scared (on a scale of 0% -not scared at all to 100%- the thought of the behavior makes you crap your pants) to go to the gym for an hour, what about for 10 minutes? What about for five minutes?

Just keep dropping the challenge of the task until you are confident in your ability.

If this means you went to the gym and did literally one machine exercise that is a GOOD start.

Odds are if you tell yourself to do this, it will turn into two or three exercises. This will turn into positive practice which will improve future confidence.

Social and Motivation Interactions

Harness positive peer pressure

You don’t feel like going to the gym or are struggling to make healthy decisions.

Why would you rely solely on motivation to get the job done if you don’t have to? Use your friends to help you make some positive health decisions.

Researchers recommend you systematically examine your social network for two reasons

  • Look for relationships that sabotage your goals
  • Look for relationships that are based around healthy behaviors (Kiernan et al., 2012).

Think about it like this. You don’t have the motivation to go to the gym, it’s been a long day at work. But you have two friends.

Let’s call one friend Beyonce, because she’s awesome and let’s call the other friend….Bertha… because that names not really used anymore so I probably won’t offend anyone.

Anyways you’re done with work and you’re supposed to go to the gym. Your motivation is low. But good thing you have Beyonce. She calls you up and says:

“Girl we are going to the gym TONIGHT, let’s get it”.

See Beyonce isn’t going to not let you go to the gym. You don’t need motivation, you have Beyonce.

Bertha on the other hand says “ahhh don’t go to the gym girl, it’s nickel shot night at McClarans”

Well since your motivation is low you go to nickel shot night and get hit on by a jerk guy

His name is probably Chad, since Chad’s are always jerks. He asks you how many tickles does it take to make an octopus laugh (ten tickles, the answer is tentickles).

While the joke was hilarious, you weren’t into him. Should have stuck with Beyonce.


Social and Ability Interactions

Create Social Support  

Tell your friends about your goals!

If you keep them in the dark about your efforts two things are going to happen

  • You’ll never stop or even identify the saboteurs to your efforts
  • You’ll never find your cheerleaders

This is really similar to the previous concept. Anytime a person tries to change for the better there will always be those people who try to bring them down.

They are going to hamper your ability to be successful.

If you find out that a ‘friend’ is a saboteur, well then, they really aren’t a friend.

But when you tell people about your goals you’ll find out who your cheerleaders are. Cheerleaders are the people who believe in you and want you to succeed.

The saboteurs will reduce your ability to succeed but the cheerleaders will enhance your ability.

A cheerleader is the boyfriend who makes you a healthy dinner after a long day of work.

It’s the girlfriend that encourages you to go for a walk after dinner and it’s the best friend that takes you to the gym and shows you everything you need to know.

Structural and Motivation Interactions

Rewards and Accountability

Set yourself up for success. Again, it’s really challenging to rely on motivation alone so try doing things to help your future self.

You can set up reminders, rewards, and put systems in place to make yourself accountable.

One way to set up a reminder, especially if you know your motivation is going to be low is to use the website ohdontforget.com

Let’s say you want to go to the gym after work but know you’ll be tired.

Set up a text message reminder to be sent to your phone at the end of the day. This little message might nudge you in the right direction.

For example, your message might sound like this:

“Dear future self, I know you’re tired but you should really go to the gym. You’re an incredible human and I believe in you”.

You can also set up rewards. If you went to the gym four days a week for an entire month, have a treat yo-self day at the end of the month. You deserve it!

Likewise, you can ask someone, like your friend Beyonce, to hold you accountable. You might ask her to check in with you or remind you to do what you intended to do.

Or you could hire a coach. If you’re paying the money to get the job done you’re much more likely to do so.

Structural and Ability Interactions

Change the Environment

Coming to the end here with a very important one.

Don’t fight your environment to be successful. Instead modify it so it works for you.

There are some things we can’t change. For example, I live right next to a pond with a three-mile loop. I’m much more likely to go for a run or a walk because all I have to do is cross the street.

If you don’t have a good walking trail near you, you’re less likely to walk.

So, let’s talk about the home environment instead. Whatever your goal is, whether it’s exercise or eating better set your home up to make it easier.

If you want to eat more fruit, put a fruit bowl filled with apples right by your keys. You’ll be more likely to grab a piece on your way out the door.

If you want to exercise put your gym clothes right in your car the night before you go to work. That little environmental prod will nudge you in the right direction.

Check out this slim by design score card to help you make your home environment nudge you in the right direction.


This has been a rather comprehensive and lengthy review. But understand that your behavior is now more in your control. Now that you know the six sources of influence you can make them work for you rather than against you.



  1. Cialdini, R.B, Reno, R.R., and Kallgren, C.A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015-1026.
  2. Kiernan, M., Moore, S.D., Schoffman, D.E., Lee, K., King, A.C. Barr Taylor, C., Kiernan, N.E., & Perri, M.G. (2012). Social support for healthy behaviors: Scale psychometrics and prediction of weight loss among women in a behavioral program. Obesity 20(4), 756-764.
  3. Michie S., van Stralen MM, West R. The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science. 6:42, 2011.