The psychological theories for behavioral change that are applicable to the online/connected worlds include: the Social Cognitive Theory, the Theory of Planned Behavior, the Transtheoretical Model, Behaviorist Theory, and the Health Belief Model. These theories apply to learning and change that occurs in behavior both online and, subsequently offline, as well. Of note, “online” in this case was used to represent both being active in the internet environment, as well as being “connected” via various devices that are used to access the internet.



  • Social Cognitive Theory revolves around the concept of “reciprocal determination,” and states that human behavior is “driven not by inner forces, but by external factors.” The theory purports that all human functioning has three features which work together in determining an individual’s behavior. These are environmental factors, which include both the environments in which the person was raised as well as the situational environments, personal factors, including “instincts, drives, traits, and other individual motivational forces,” and the ensuring behaviors that stem from these forces.
  • Based on this theory, six major variables affect how an individual will react in any given situation, including: self-efficacy, or a person’s belief in their abilities to perform certain behaviors; outcome expectations, or a person’s perception of the consequences that will follow the behaviors; self-control, or how well a person can control their emotions and related reactions; reinforcements, or factors that will decrease or increase the possibility a person will behave a certain way; emotional coping, or the person’s ability to deal with emotional stimuli; and observational learning, which is how much and how well they learn (and have learned) by watching other people (or influencers in their lives).
  • Many aspects of Social Cognitive Theory can be seen in action on social media sites, influencing users’ behaviors in both positive and negative ways.
  • For a view on the negative, take the mob mentality that can occur on these sites, like Twitter, for example. This article from the Washington Post details one columnist’s struggle with a Twitter onslaught-of-hate after he’d posted an opinion article. A small part of the opinion was quickly taken out of context and spread virally, making him the target of constant attacks from both conservatives and liberals, even after he published a retraction with an explanation that mollified many of those who were initially angry.
  • The mob-like reaction against him led the columnist to take immediate online (and real-world) actions, including removing and retracting the post, defending his actions, and making him much more careful in his wording on future articles with incendiary topics. This type of group mentality – which is encouraged when so many others jump on the same bandwagon – is directly tied to Social Cognitive Theory.
  • Of note, people who feel supported in speaking their opinions online, especially those of a vitriolic nature, quickly learn that these communities can be places where they can behave however they want to, without regard to the same consequences seen in real life, and possibly with much more perceived support than that type of behavior would ever receive live. Research from National Geographic details how people’s online worlds have begun being as much – or more – influential than their in-person worlds, and when those worlds include a lot of nasty behavior and negative-speak, they can significantly affect the person’s online and real lives – and how they behave overall.
  • A 2017 Pew Research report noted that, by their estimates, approximately 40% of all online users have been harassed by someone who disagreed vehemently with their opinions. Politics was the biggest cause for arguments, even among strangers, with more than 50% of these attacks coming from anonymous or sources outside the individual’s circle. Almost 90% of those who’d been harassed “said they didn’t know the perpetrator’s identity”.
  • These perpetrators demonstrate the tenets of Social Cognitive Theory, in that they are allowing external forces (and sometimes hidden internal beliefs) guide their online behaviors. “If the antagonizers on social media face no repercussions, that encourages the growth of aggression, incivility, and just plain meanness.”
  • Social Cognitive Theory can also be applied to teens new to social media, and the enormous pressure they feel to compete in online environments where everyone appears to be happy, healthy, having fun, and loving every minute of their lives. Most people (and teens especially) only show their best, brightest, most-amazing moments on social media, “while concealing efforts, struggles, and the merely ordinary aspects of day-to-day life.” Evidence shows that this vast disparity between what they see as others’ lives and their own is causing significant mental health issues among teens, increasing their emotional struggles – and profoundly affecting their behaviors (both online and in the real world).
  • Social media can also be tools for self-abuse and to foster further self-doubt where seeds have already sown simply from being in the teenage years. The likes – for images and posts that people know do not represent someone’s reality – provide “dangerous validation” for these individuals, and can cause significant changes in the ways they interact with themselves and the world (both the online one and the real one).


  • At the heart of the Theory of Planned Behavior is an individual’s intention to perform a specific behavior. An intention is influenced and determined by the person’s varying attitudes, beliefs, and values, as well as their perceptions of what other people will think of their behaviors, and their own beliefs about their abilities to successfully perform said behaviors. With intention being at the core of this theory, it’s easy to see applications in the online world.
  • Data-driven marketing is the perfect example of the application of this theory. Data scientists, AI bots, data-collection programs built into every system, and even one’s internet cookies collect untold amounts of data on one’s online behaviors – and translate those into targeted, personalized ads based on what that data says about one’sintentions.
  • Let’s say someone considers taking a class on Javascript and conduct a quick Google search looking for them. Within moments, the advertisements he will see if he continues to surf the web – and even if he moves to his social media accounts – are now targeted toward him possibly taking a class. In this way, marketers and data collectors use people’s intentions to influence their behaviors, and hopefully make them choose to take a class from one of their sponsors.
  • This influence on people’s intentions and subsequent actions (as noted in this theory) can also be found in programs and apps people use. If a person’s intention is to quit smoking, there are hundreds of apps available to use that intention and push them toward the positive actions those intentions are inspiring. If a person’s intention is to reduce their anxiety, thousands of apps are designed to harness every opportunity (through constant push notifications and such) to guide those intentions toward the desired goal.
  • For changing people’s online behaviors, this theory notes that the shift in intention needs to start with personal motivation. That’s one reason why feel-good marketing techniques work on so many consumers: when a brand makes a person feel good about him/herself – either online or in the real world, that brand has a more-loyal follower. Of note, individuals value a sense of control in their intentions, attitudes, and behaviors, and too much outside exertion of control can seem intrusive or unwelcome, leading to a loss of motivation toward that brand (or intention).


  • The Transtheoretical Model states that change comes in a set of six stages, each of which is dependent on the individual growing past (or moving out of) the previous stage. The stages include: pre-contemplation, or the thinking-maybe-in-the-next-six-months phase; contemplation, when intention to make the change begins to solidify; preparation, when a person has a plan of action in place to make the change; action and maintenance, steps that may overlap as individuals struggle to maintain the new behavior and release the old; and termination, where the new behavior has become part of the individual’s consistent behaviors.
  • Individuals tend to get stuck in one phase or another oftentimes when they try to change a behavior, especially a long-ingrained one. To move through each of the stages in this model, people need to: have their consciousness raised through awareness and education; have an experience of “dramatic relief” where they are deeply emotionally affected but can take an action of some sort to relief the tension; have a period of self-reevaluation where they consider their past thoughts and behaviors, as well as ponder healthier ways to be; and environmental reevaluation, where they realize how their environments (and those with whom they regularly interact) have deep impacts on their lives – both with the previous behaviors and the new behaviors.
  • An example of this theory in action in the online world is a charity fundraising campaign. These types of heart-wrenching fundraising campaigns stir the intentions in people’s hearts, then bring the point where they are nearly demanding respite from the drama and anxiety, and provide them with an immediate-relief opportunity in the form of a “donate here” button (or other call to action). These campaigns work because they follow the Transtheoretical Model’s framework for success.
  • Social media channels feed off people’s need for constant validation, which is why disconnecting from social media (for even a brief period of time) feels like getting up and walking out of a casino, where each dollar you win is in the form of a “like,” “love,” or “haha,” and logging off means leaving money just sitting on the table.
  • Posting one singular post on any social media channel is also an example of this theory in action. The social user sees something that inspires a thought of reposting Infographic-A (pre-contemplation / contemplation); the social user considers whether to post Infographic-A or not – taking into account what it might make others think of him or how many reactions (positive or negative) he might get for doing so (preparation); the user then clicks “forward” and adds a personalized note to Infographic-A, likely rewriting it a couple of times using different approaches and language (changing his behavior to ensure he receives validation from the post); then waits for others’ reactions to see how he himself will behave in response (this last step being off-theory).


  • Behaviorist Theory is one of the foundational psychological theories of education, and focuses only on “observable behaviors,” and “discounting independent activities of the mind.” The theory holds that learning (or change) takes place when a stimulus is followed by a response – that either rewards a behavior or ignores/corrects it. Change is a multi-step process in Behaviorism, with each step building on the next in “successive approximations.” In this way, each smaller chunk of the goal-behavior is cemented into place, slowly building toward the end-goal.
  • The successive approximations (or incremental steps toward a goal) found in Behaviorism are rampant across the online world. Take popular smartphone games, for example. The ones most notorious for utilizing the principles of this theory are the free games.
  • In these, the user not willing to spend any actual money is given a limited number of lives and options, with game-based gifts or prizes given out sparingly, so as to give them more value in the user’s mind. As users move up levels, the rewards get fewer and the pushes to upgrade get more frequent. This is the stimulus-response system at its core.
  • Another example of this is online retailers. A user pulls up the Wish app on her phone and is immediately greeted with a daily coupon. As she continues to shop, she’s presented with more-personalized items and upsells for products already on her Wishlist or in her cart. If she navigates away from a product, she is presented with a coupon (positive stimulus) to remain on the page and purchase the product. Online retailers are all positive-stimulus and reward-based, as that is what is most effective when faced with the enormous competition in that realm.
  • Just as was noted above for the Theoretical Model, Behaviorism can be seen in the way social media channels and online communities are created, as well as the behaviors they foster based on the simple stimulus (post or comment) – response (post or comment) – with positive and negative skews.


  • Although developed in the 1950s, the Health Belief Model (HBM) is still in prevalent use today, and correlates directly to change in online (and real-life) behaviors. The HBM was founded on the principles that people will seek to avoid illness (or even talking about potential illness) as much as possible, and can still hold the belief that a particular action (or behavior change) will prevent or even cure said illness. Thus, the model helped scientists understand why people work so hard to avoid performing preventative health behaviors or taking early-screening tests. The more personal the threat, the greater the avoidance.
  • Six constructs guide this theory, including: perceived susceptibility, or how much an individual believes they might be at risk for said health issue; perceived severity, or how severe contracting said illness would seem to the individual; perceived benefits, or how effective the person sees particular behaviors or actions might be in keeping the illness at bay or alleviating it; perceived barriers, or how much fear or anxiety the person has over the obstacles that might be encountered from the illness; cue to action, which is the trigger-point for making the change in behavior; and self-efficacy, which is the individual’s belief in whether or not s/he can perform a certain task, like in this case, have a mammogram or getting a biopsy done. (
  • The tenets of this theory can be found applied in health-based apps and tele-health options alike. In 2017, there were more than 325K mhealth apps on the market. Many of these apps are specifically geared toward preventive health care, which directly ties into how the Health Belief Model can encourage changes in individual behaviors (in their connected lives and their real-world lives).
  • By positively encouraging and providing motivation for users to eat better, or be more active, or enjoy more time relaxing in happy times with loved ones, or similar behavior-based changes, the apps apply the HBM tenets toward pushing users to behave in more health-focused ways. The apps help reduce the barriers, like fear or misinformation, typically include trigger-point identifiers (or something bigger), and often provide a social support system to help the user feel more connected to the app – and the behavioral goals themselves. They work through the combined power of fear and motivation, which are main principles of this model.
  • Along the same lines are products like the Fitbit Inspire, which provides “friendly guidance and serious motivation to build healthy habits …” – which, in itself, speaks directly to the Health Belief Model. The Fitbit itself offers small-step-by-small-step motivations (which speaks to multiple other behavioral theories not mentioned here) paired with education, tips and tricks for success, real-life success stories of users, and a whole community to join. Taken in total, each feature of the product is designed to address the users’ fears, reduce user anxiety, and make users believe they are taking actual, helpful steps toward keeping any (or all) illnesses at bay.
  • A 2018 study applied the HBM to assessing young adults’ perceptions on their own susceptibility to eight major illnesses, as well as the perceived seriousness of these illnesses, and the perception of preventive services if they were made available. The data showed that these perceptions (along with gender, age, and ethnic differences) significantly affected young adults’ willingness to engage in preventive health measures (or even perceive any immediate need to do so). With research like this – and the data collected from connected health options (like those previously mentioned) – brands and marketers can more-specifically target each user exactly how s/he would be best approached; which is the essence of all behavioral change models.


  • The newest of the learning/change theories featured here is that of Connectivism, which is founded on the notion that “people process information by forming connections.” It is the theory most related to digital advances, and that formal education is only one way people learn, in that they are learning every day on the job, through networking and social interactions, and through access to technological tools.
  • Connectivism’s core foundation is that learning (which causes true change) “is an active and constructive process.” The eight foundational principles of the theory are: learning and change rely on a diversity in opinion; learning is a connection-based process; learning can be provided by (or reside in) “non-human appliances;” one’s capacity for knowledge is “more critical than what is currently known;” to continually learn, one needs to nurture and maintain connections; the ability to make connections between “fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill;” the aim of connectivist learning is “accurate, up-to-date knowledge;” and learning is a process involving decision-making.
  • The way that the media has been forced to transform their approaches to news is a solid example of Connectivism at work. Traditionally, news was shared daily through printed newspapers, monthly through printed periodicals, or three times a day on the local TV station. With the advent of the internet and later creation of online news sites, the presentational format of that news – and the immediacy of it – changed.
  • A 2018 study showed that 47% of Americans prefer to watch news (online or on TV) rather than reading it. Just over third (34%) of Americans in 2018 preferred getting their news from online sources (news sites, apps, social media), up 6% from the previous year. To acclimate, news outlets have increased the video-based news segments they put out, and increased the immediacy of the stories they post. Now, news outlets are running 24/7 online – offering new ways to learn, and hopefully, change behaviors based on that learning, with every passing minute.
  • The growth of the “stories format” on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram are demonstrative of Connectivist principles. This presentation format allows social media users to share short experiences with other users, many of which include exchanges of information that may lead to learning (and therefore change).
  • In addition, the social media channels themselves – through their vast collections of data on users’ activities – have learned that this is one of the most-preferred formats for users on receiving from their newsfeeds. As such, Facebook reports that users can expect to see a lot more of this content style in the coming days.
  • Another area showing extensive long-term growth and that has its foundation in connectivism is Youtube learning videos. Users can log in and learn anything they want any time they want from a huge selection of different instructor-types. How often in American society does one hear the phrase, “Just look it up on Youtube!”? In fact, Youtube even developed a separate “Youtube Learning” channel that offers trending learning videos, subscriptions, and a library, along with current hot-hot videos selected based on the user’s previous history of watching/learning, to appease its’ ever-expanding audience’s thirst for knowledge.


  • Constructivism is a learning theory (and behavior-change model) wherein change happens because an individual has actively and reflectively experienced the world (or some aspect of it) in a new way; it’s about growth (and change) through personalized mentorship and development. In this model, change is “learner-centered and learner-generated” – meaning that the individual is in charge of where that change will go, and it’s more “authentic, complex, and contextualized, resembling real-life experiences.” Foundational in this theory is that more knowledge and more experiences equal greater opportunities for change.
  • The mere act of surfing the web is the simplest example of Constructivist principles. To follow a quick-path for this example, let’s say Danny opens a browser window to learn more about Democratic-Socialist beliefs. He types in a search phrase, scrolls through the returned options, and selects Article B. He reads Article B, views the related articles listed at the bottom, and clicks on Video Y.
  • From there, he continues his learning journey until his thirst for the knowledge is satisfied (or he just has to get to bed because he’s surfed well past when he should have stopped). This path shows how Danny’s online exploration of his current interests followed its own path and was completely contextualized for what he wanted to know, which is precisely how Constructivism works.
  • The rise of AI and algorithms that learn / adjust based on that learning is an example of constructivism in-process. Anyone who surfs the web and uses Facebook has seen how the ads they’re presented with change based on the keywords they’ve used in searches, and even the products they’ve purchased or viewed while shopping online.
  • This is because the AI-algorithms on Facebook are set to track what users look at / interact with while on the site, as well as what they have running in the background (like a browser window with a recent search or a shopping site, as examples), and what they can mine from third-party companies with privileges for pulling and selling users’ connected data. These algorithms learn from users and change their “behaviors” (what they present to users and how often) based on that learning.
  • Online communities and forums (including social media groups) are another example of Constructivism at work. People join groups that offer something they already enjoy (like a current hobby or focus), or that offer something that they want to know/experience more.
  • Interacting with other members – like reading their posts, watching their stories, or discussing the group’s focus – offers chances for each member to learn from and/or teach the other members. The interactions are user-centered and the learning that occurs from those interactions is user-generated, demonstrating the principles of this theory.


  • The Social Ecological Model is founded in the belief that an individual’s behaviors are shaped by their social environment, just as they influence and shape the behavior of others within that same environment. These spheres of influence include multiple levels, “such as individual, interpersonal, organizational, community, and public policy,” and consider an individual’s community-based cultural norms and values.
  • Of note, the reciprocal determinism of Social Cognitive Theory is also a core construct of this model. The internet and social media are perfect vehicles for spreading the effects of the social ecological model – both the good effects and the bad.
  • Violence prevention strategies and movements, which are easily found in every corner of the internet, are based in the Social Ecological Model. An example of this would be a school shooting incident. Before dust even settles on the spent shell casings, organizers are following the tenets of this model to help keep their communities from falling apart after the tragedy, and help educate other communities toward the goal of keeping it from happening in theirs.
  • These movements focus on inciting individual commitment to non-violence, familial commitment (getting one’s family’s involved), the commitment of the community as a whole to help protect their youngsters, and societal buy-in on efforts to keep the same thing from occurring at other schools. These efforts are often doubled and tripled in the online world – with posts abounding with the latest tragedy and how people can help to stop the endless violence cycle – and the stories being shared across the globe.
  • In the same way, climate change facts-n-statistics are shared more widely across the globe than ever before because of the internet and social media channels. Due to this, there is also more counter-science information (false facts and fake news) being created and shared. These opposing factions are using the tenets of the Social Ecological Model to influence society (and individuals) to behave in certain ways.
  • Companies who have made their fortunes on the exploitation of natural resources, for example, have found plenty of government representatives willing to take their “campaign contributions” in exchange for favorable legislation (real-life application). In addition, the internet has provided a wealth of easy ways (like memes, blogs, sponsored content, videos, etc) for these organizations to apply the Social Ecological Model toward teaching their audience what they want them to know (online applications).


  • Goal-Setting Theory is another of those presented that’s been around a long time (it’s from the late 60s). This theory involves setting the famous “S.M.A.R.T.” goals – which are specific, measurable, actionable, relative, and time-focused. Goal-Setting Theory is based in both Behavioristic theories and Humanistic theories, the latter of which will be discussed next.
  • To be effective, the setting and meeting of goals requires aforethought on five principles: clarity, or ensuring the goals are simply expressed and measurable; challenge, or how amazing the goal-setter will feel if this accomplishment is reached; commitment, or the person’s level of buy-in to the overall goal and individual tasks; feedback, or how the goals are rewarded or adjusted based on meeting the small-step-goals; and complexity, or how difficult and complex the path toward reaching the goal might be along with the person’s potential to be overwhelmed.
  • An example of Goal-Setting Theory in action in the connected world is an activity-tracking app. A new runner who is training to run his first 5K race downloads one of these, feeds it an abundance of personal information, then uses it to track and measure each smaller goal toward the ultimate goal of reaching the 5K-mark within a specific length of time. These apps are set up on the foundations of Goal-Setting Theory.
  • Along those same lines are language-learning apps. Interactive, small-goal-based programs, like Duolingo and Babbel as examples, are very popular and very successful at helping people learn new languages – and therefore, change their behaviors.
  • After earning a certification at Udemy, a person completing a particular course of study, like Data Science for example, will earn an online badge. This badge can be placed on the person’s LinkedIn profile as a symbol that certain goals have been reached.
  • The goals for the certification program (to earn the certification and badge) include each course-level project, each course itself, each final grade, and eventually, the certificate of completion. They are based on specific, measurable achievements, are time-based according to the learner’s needs, are relevant to his particular needs, and provide extrinsic rewards (the certification, skills, and badge) and intrinsic rewards (pride, accomplishment). This is the essence of Goal-Setting Theory in practice.


  • Humanism is based on the notion that learning and change are all part of each individual’s path toward self-actualization. The most influential aspects of this type of change-based learning are scenarios, role-modeling, personal experiences and exploration, and the observation of others (either in real life or online, wherever a person’s influencers might be).
  • Different than most of the other approaches presented here, the Humanistic approach is not based in Behaviorist tenets. This is an approach that is seen as the third in the triadic-approach to studying humans and their behavior: Behaviorism, Psychoanalysis, and Humanism. At its core, Humanism is founded on the beliefs that humans have free will, are basically good (over evil), need conscious experiences to grow (or change), and are motivated toward self-actualization.
  • The offline world’s significant market for self-help gurus, books, classes, and groups combined with the online world’s array of self-help and development apps, channels, groups, videos, and the like are perfect examples of the general tendency toward Humanism. Each of these products (or groups or whatever) is based on the fundamental beliefs of the theory – that people want to learn, grow, and become better versions of themselves, and society (especially the connected society) is more than happy to help provide them with myriad ways to do so.
  • Consider the focus of most of these apps, groups, channels, and such – seeing the good (rather than just the bad) everywhere, understanding that people fail and still loving them when they do, giving people space to be themselves without judgment, recognizing when someone else needs help and providing it, acting with acceptance (not just tolerance), and focusing on the connections/similarities between others rather than the differences. Many people see these as the behaviors of wiser and more emotionally-developed people, and utilize a variety of offline and online ways to help that achieve that life-goal.
  • A quick search using the key phrase “motivational meme” is another example; the results number over 276 million. People want to work toward being better people – and can poke fun at each other over that growth – while providing themselves (and others) the motivation toward those goals.
  • Similarly to Connectivist Theory, the Humanist Approach can be seen in Youtube videos and America’s unquenchable thirst for learning from their counterparts all over the world. The “stories format” with its quick rise to popularity is also connected to this theory, in that role-modeling and observing others is part of how people best learn, change, and grow.
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.


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