The "challenge and relax" theory* of behavioural change

Philip Sutton (based on ideas developed in 1971 !)

Version 2.f 9, October 2015

(* - for the scientific purists out there, it's really a hypothesis)

The theory is based on a mental models approach. The idea is that people make sense of the world by constructing mental models. These build up from very basic elements that start with experience or ideas passed on from others, and they can be added to by gaining more experience, accessing more ideas from others or, importantly, through introspection.

People's mental models can be made up of lots of semi-independent mental constructs. Most people link many of these lower-order constructs into increasingly large mental super-structures (complex models or 'world views'). The large mental super-structures tend to become increasingly stable (often despite changes in the external environment) because people depend on them to make sense of the world.

If these big mental structures are “under construction” (ie. open to major change) they are often subconsciously considered to be less reliable and therefore less useful or less safe. For this reason, people who are under intense and unrelenting pressure to act, often simply cannot afford to revise their mental models in any major way because this would threaten their day-to-day competence. Day-to-day competence depends on having and using well-structured and well-integrated models of their action world and the ways to be effective in it. It should therefore be expected that people will only be able to make major revisions to their world view if they can get some “time out” from day-to-day pressures to act.

Unless people develop a meta-approach that enables them to operate with a constant up-dating approach to their major mental models, the difficulties normally experienced when revising mental models force people to behave metaphorically like lobsters. (To operate with a contant up-dating approach requires a person to have a higher-than-average tolerance for uncertainty) .

Lobsters can only grow by shedding their protective, but constraining, shell. When they do this they have to withdraw from their normal environment and find a safe haven – because they are physically incapacitated by the loss of their exo-skeleton and they are more vulnerable to predators and injury. Shedding or substantially revamping an obsolete mental model poses the same sorts of competence and vulnerability difficulties for people as shell-shedding does for the lobster. A person engaging in significant mental model change needs to be in a less challenging or threatening environment while the new mental models are firmed up and are able to replace the old ones.

To create new mental models, challenging new ideas need to be taken into people's minds. This often requires a process of attention getting (the challenge phase) because (a) there is such a large amount of other information being pushed at people that new ideas can easily be crowded out, and also because (b) new ideas can be at least somewhat threatening because they call into question current mental models that people rely upon for effective interpretation or the world and action within it. So even as the attention getting aspect of the challenge phase is working it usually will also trigger the erection of protective mental barriers to contain the 'dangerous' new ideas. To allow people the safe conditions that enable them to moderate the mental barriers - so that the new ideas can be considered – it is necessary to follow the challenge phase fairly promptly with a safe relaxation phase.


So putting all this together we can see that the process of mental change at the large paradigm level can require at least 4 types of change before anything practical will eventuate.

Introduction of elements cycles of challenge and relax

To create a new paradigm, first constituent elements need to be introduced into people's mental model space. So one cycle of challenge and relax is needed for each constituent element. The constituent elements are not useful as an alternative mental model so no behavioural change results at this stage.

Meta-model building cycles of challenge and relax

The new elements generally won't be useful until they are linked up into a new meta structure (made up of old and new elements). To build this new mental model requires often another set of cycles of challenge and relax. The new meta structure has never been tested in real life (or tested in a near-real life intellectual context) so it is not yet useful as a practically reliable alternative mental model so no behavioural change results at this stage.

Converting to a practical model cycles of challenge and relax

The new meta structure needs to be tested in a safe real life or real life-like context so that extra model elements related to practical implementation can be added.

With the implementation elements added, the new meta model can now be relied upon for use in the real world. But because this extra model building stage has to be completed in the relax phase of the cycle (as usual) the pressure is off and so it is highly likely that no behavioural change will result - even now.

Triggering the change-over to reliance on the new model cycles of challenge and relax

A new challenge (and relax?) cycle is needed to make it worthwhile to shift from practical reliance on the old mental meta model to the new mental meta model. Once this fourth change has occurred behavioural change can at last ensue.

The possibility of rejection or resistance

Rather than following the sequence above, there is a possibility that after a challenge occurs (and a person's attention is grabbed and they they take in ideas for consideration) and during the relaxation phase they might not accept the new ideas or be neutral to them (ie. leave the ideas inside the mind, but hanging by themselves and not integrated to any mental models involved in action). Instead a person might decide that they really don't like the new ideas, with the result that they actively avoid further engagement with the ideas unless and until:

The 'huge challenge' route to reconsideration is the one people are implicitly thinking of when they say “we need a disaster to make people change”. But often by the time the disaster arrives the best time for action has passed.

So the “trojan horse” strategy could be quite important to get an earlier reconsideration of rejected or resisted ideas.

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Author: Philip Sutton
First posted: 28 February 2006
Content updated: 3 October 2015
Format updated: 3 October 2015
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