The ABC’s of Change - Introduction


Most experts agree that it is impossible for a behavior to occur without a preceding thought.  Even  behaviors that many people believe happen “without thinking” really do require a preceding thought, although the individual is likely not aware of this thought.  So in order to change a behavior the preceding thought must be changed.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.


Hidden behind thinking is something we call a belief system.  Essentially a belief system is a “collection of ideas, memories really, that one has amassed throughout life concerning the nature of his or her world.” For simplicities’ sake, think of the ‘belief system’ as all of the information one might use to make a decision about what to do in any given situation.  (For more information regarding belief systems, see related articles.)


One’s belief system is the governing system that really dictates the eventual behavior that is ultimately chosen by the person.  The significance of identifying the components of one’s belief system is that according to accepted theory, if one’s core belief about something does not change, then by the definition of the relationship between beliefs and behaviors, the desired permanent behavioral change will not happen either.  Many attempts at making change happen are aimed directly at changing behavior, and therein lies the fatal flaw in many of these techniques.


This may all sound a little confusing at this point, but by looking at a model, we can simplify the process.  A relatively simple way for conceptualizing the evolution of a behavior is the ABC model.  This model states that behavior really begins with an “activating event.”  An activating event is that “something” that one will eventually respond to by performing a given behavior.  Once an activating event occurs, the person experiencing the event (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching) engages his/her belief system to make some kind of sense about what is occurring.  In the brain a “search” is literally occurring.  The brain is searching the archives (memory) looking for similar ‘events’ that have occurred in the past.  “What did I do the last time I experienced such a thing?  What am I supposed to do in this situation?  What is the likely outcome?”


Many folks have a hard time believing that this is really occurring each and every time an event is experienced, and that is not surprising, given the fact that the “search” occurs “automatically.”  It occurs in the portion of the brain we loosely refer to as the subconscious.  Our brains can still outpace the fastest of super computers, so it is not at all surprising that this search occurs “nearly instantaneously.” 


Once the search is complete, the brain generates a cognitive response (cognition is a technical word, borrowed from the Greek word for knowledge, that has been loosely translated to mean thought.)  It is important to note at this point that beliefs are not the same as thoughts.  Beliefs are housed in the subconscious and are the “building blocks” for thoughts, which form in the conscious brain.  Emotions are closely related to thoughts but are separate.  Certain types of thoughts have been linked to certain types of emotions.  These linkages can also be altered, but again, for simplicities’ sake, we will include thought and emotion together in the cognitive response, as they are both processes that occur in the brain.  Technically thought precedes emotion (think about it, it is impossible to be angry about something that one has no knowledge of), but for this model cognitive response will include the generated thought and accompanying emotion.


Once the cognitive response has occurred now one has to decide what to do (the behavior).  Again, our thoughts and feelings about things have been linked to specific behaviors in our own personal histories.  Most folks give little thought to altering the connection between the two until a change is desired.  It is important to note that nearly always it is the behavior that gets one in trouble.  We don’t become over-weight, for example, by thinking about eating food, but by actually doing it.


The final part of the model is the end result of the behavior.  Simply put, this is the consequence of our actions.


If you haven’t figured it out by now, the steps in the process follow the ABCDE progression: A = activating event, B = belief system, C = cognitive response (thought/emotion), D = doing (the behavior) and E = end result (the consequence).  Collectively this process can be called the thought process.  It always flows in one direction, from A > E, in a cascading fashion, never the reverse.  This is an important distinction because working from the wrong end (or example the consequence end) is like swimming up-stream.


As you can see, much goes on between the activating event and the behavior.  Intervention can take place at each of the linkages, but the closer one gets to the source the more powerful the interventions become.  For example, it is possible to make some, almost always temporary, changes at the D (behavioral level), but changes at the C (cognitive level) are far more powerful, and changes at the B (belief) level dwarf the other two levels by a long shot.


In order to really understand the connections, it is helpful to apply the model to a specific activating event.  (See “ABC Application”).


All Rights Reserved.  Copyright: October 2008.  Take Charge Counseling and Consulting. 

Author: Miles Nitz, MS, LMFT.