The 5 Stages Of Change (Transtheoretical) Model Of Behavior Change

As humans, we are continually changing and evolving. From month to month and year to year, we make many small changes to our behavior.

There are, however, some behaviors that are a little more ingrained than others, and some that are much harder to shift.

The 5 Stages of Change Model, also known as the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), was originally developed in the early 1980s.

Essentially, this model is based on the (fairly logical!) idea that no change happens in just one step, but that anyone making a change in their lives will go through a series of five stages, each distinct from one another and each predictable.

Some argue that if people can be made aware of the stage of change they’re in, they will then be better able to progress through the stages and achieve lasting change, rather than returning to their original patterns of behavior.

It’s not quite that simple, though. Unfortunately, people don’t usually just climb the five rungs of the ladder of change once and then stay firmly on the top step.

It’s more of a strange spiral staircase that dips down and then rises up again. You hit each of the five stages multiple times before finally getting onto the top step and achieving lasting change.

There’s no guarantee that you won’t take a tumble even after you’ve been in the fifth stage for quite some time.  

This model was originally developed as a way of understanding how smokers manage to kick the habit, but these days it’s applied to people shaking off practically any kind of behavior, from alcohol and drug addictions to unhealthy relationships with food or a sedentary lifestyle.

Let’s take a closer look at the five stages of this model.

1. Precontemplation

This stage is often referred to as being ‘in denial,’ refusing to acknowledge that there’s any problem whatsoever.

People in this stage have no interest in making any changes to the way they behave, at least in the immediate future (normally considered to be the next six months).

They may believe that they aren’t capable of changing, as they’ve tried and failed multiple times before and lost all self-belief and motivation.

They may stick their head firmly in the sand and deny that their habit has any negative effects on them at all. This means that, if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already moved past stage one.

They may be under-informed about the consequences of their behavior, but to compound that, they tend to be selective when it comes to the information they pay attention to, latching on to anything that suggests that the habit isn’t doing them any harm.

Some other models don’t include this stage at all, not considering people in this state of mind to be experiencing change. They only see those who are taking observable action to be going through the process of making a significant change.

To get past this stage, some kind of emotional trigger or event might be necessary to provide the motivation they’re currently lacking.

2. Contemplation

Stage two is when a person is considering the pros and cons of making a significant change to their life.

They’re weighing up the costs, whether in the form of money, time, or simply effort, of modifying their behavior, and how that compares to the benefits they will enjoy as a result.

They’re trying to decide if it’s really worth the hard work, and from their point of view the cons still seem to have more weight than the pros.

People in this stage normally intend to take action within the next six months. However, they can, in practice, remain the same way for years without ever moving on to the next step.

If you remain stuck on this step for a long time, it’s known as chronic contemplation or behavioral procrastination. You know deep down you should, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it.

3. Preparation

If you’re ready to take action and intend to do so in the very near future (normally within a month), then you’re in stage three, which is preparation.

This is the first stage in which someone will actually take some kind of action rather than just mulling things over in their mind.

People in this category have taken a concrete step toward change, which might be speaking to a doctor, a counselor, a personal trainer, a life coach, signing up for a gym, or registering for some kind of program, depending on the behavior they wish to change.

4. Action

People in stage four have made noticeable, specific changes to their lifestyles within the last six months. These are all actions which can be observed by others, which is why this stage is known as action.

This might be exercising regularly, or giving up smoking and using some kind of nicotine replacement product.

This is the stage when individuals making changes are most at risk of relapsing and going back a few stages, even right back to stage one.

Some other models have only acknowledged that change is happening at all when they see action, entirely discounting the first three stages which lead up to this step in the Transtheoretical Model.

5. Maintenance

Once you’ve reached stage five, the new actions that you started taking to change your behavior have successfully become positive habits that now make up part of your everyday life.

However, if the change that has been made is something like exercising, the person may not be exercising quite as frequently as they were when in the action stage.

They will still be keeping up their fitness levels and won’t have returned to their old patterns of behavior, but they won’t be quite as zealous as they were initially.

At this stage, people are less tempted to relapse into their previous behaviors and continue to develop confidence that they will be able to sustain the changes they have made indefinitely.

The longer they manage to stay in the maintenance stage, the lower the chance that they will revert.

However, people can remain in this stage for up to five years before they’re truly established in their new patterns of behavior and the risk of relapse becomes negligible.

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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

As mentioned earlier, this isn’t necessarily a one-way street or an uphill climb.

People often bounce between stages two, three, and four – contemplation, preparation, and action – and can sometimes even relapse completely back to stage one, with their failure underlining in their minds that they’re incapable of making lasting change, so they shouldn’t even bother trying.

A good example of people bouncing between stages are those that are always doing ‘yo-yo’ diets, going through phases of obsessive exercise and complete inactivity, and buying expensive gym memberships every January, but never actually using them.

10 Processes Of Change

The five stages of change within the Transtheoretical Model explain to us when alterations in behavior, emotion, and thought take place while someone is moving toward making a significant lifestyle change.

In order to truly understand how we make lasting behavioral changes, however, it isn’t enough to look at WHEN things happen. We also need to look at HOW the changes occur.

The TTM identifies ten covert and overt processes that an individual needs to go through for them to successfully progress from stage one to stage five and maintain the new, desired behavior.

These ten can be divided into two sub-groups of five, the first being cognitive and affective experiential processes (changes of thinking/changes of heart) and the second being behavioral processes (changes in actions being taken).

Cognitive And Affective Experiential Processes

1. Consciousness Raising

The individual makes an effort to become more informed, seeking new information and gaining a better understanding of the problematic behavior.

2. Dramatic Relief

In this process, the individual starts to pay attention to feelings they’re experiencing and expressing them to others, sharing their thoughts about the problematic behavior and suggesting potential solutions.

3. Environmental Re-evaluation

This key process occurs when the individual begins to consider how their behavior affects those around them.

They assess how much of an impact the problem behavior has on their physical and social environment.

4. Self Re-evaluation

This is when the individual examines their own values with respect to the problematic behavior and assesses them emotionally and cognitively, reaching different conclusions to the ones they believed previously.

They create a new image of themselves that they then carry forwards in their mind, impacting their thinking and behavior.

5. Social Liberation

This is the process of the individual noticing the support that they’re receiving from others for their new behaviors.

They become aware that their goal behavior is more socially acceptable than the way they were behaving previously.

Behavioral Processes

1. Self-liberation

Self-liberation is the process of making a conscious choice and committing to change the problematic behavior.

When a person commits, they believe that they have the ability to follow through and actually achieve the change. It is within their grasp.

2. Counter-conditioning

This is when a person begins to make use of substitutes for the problematic behavior to prevent them from doing it.

3. Helping Relationships

No man or woman is an island, and no one can achieve lasting change without the support of those around them.

This process is trusting, accepting, and making use of the support of those that care about us to help us make a significant change.

4. Reinforcement Management

The carrot is normally far more powerful than the stick, and gaining rewards for making changes, whether you give them to yourself or receive them from others, is an important process of change.

If there’s nothing immediate in it for us, we’re unlikely to do it.

5. Stimulus Control

Last but not least, we come to stimulus control, which is essentially managing the environment around you. This is about trying to make sure that you control situations or other causes that might in the past have triggered the habit that you’re trying to kick or alter.

At What Stage Of Change Do You Go Through Each Process Of Change?

If you seek the help of a professional, as many people do when trying to change a particular habit, then they may have ways to encourage you to begin certain processes of change at certain times.

This will depend on your situation and what they believe is beneficial to you at that point in your journey.

They may, for example, encourage you to reach out to those around you and let them know about what you’re trying to achieve, meaning that you begin the helping relationships process.

If you’re attempting to change a certain behavior by yourself, however, and aren’t aware of the stages of change model, then you will naturally tend to go through these stages at different points.

Some of the processes will be associated with a couple of the stages of change, and some will only be experienced at a certain stage.

For example, consciousness raising is linked to stage two, contemplation. This is the stage when you’re weighing up the pros and cons and start to seek out new information.

In precontemplation, you’re in denial and aren’t interested in finding out, and by the time you’ve hit preparation, you’re already convinced that changing the behavior will be beneficial to you, so generally don’t need to do further investigation.

Self-liberation is a process that you will go through during the preparation stage, when you take the first active step on your journey.

All in all, the links between stages and processes are fairly self-explanatory, but that doesn’t mean to say that everyone will go through each process at exactly the same time and during the same stage.

Just as people can bounce between stages, they can also begin to go through a process and not resolve it, coming back to it at a later time on their journey toward change.

It’s important to remember that these processes aren’t mutually exclusive, unlike the five stages of change.

With the stages, you are either in one or the other, but never in two simultaneously. With the processes of change, on the other hand, you can be – and usually are – going through several cognitive and effective processes and behavioral processes all at once.

Knowledge Is Power

When you’re trying to make a drastic lifestyle change, being aware of where you are on the ladder of the TTM can be your secret weapon and help you reach your goal much faster than if you were to be making the climb without any idea of the road ahead of you. Think of this model as a handy map.

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be better able to recognize certain behaviors in yourself and, therefore, help yourself to keeping taking steps forward toward the end goal and avoid slipping up.

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About Author

Katie is a writer and translator with a focus on travel, self-care and sustainability. She's based between a cave house in Granada, Spain, and the coast of beautiful Cornwall, England. She spends her free time hiking, exploring, eating vegan tapas and volunteering for a local dog shelter.