The 4E Approach to Behavior Change

How Can the 4E Approach Help Create More Effective Interventions for Sustainable Behavioral Change?


  • Yilan Liu University of Vienna


Less drinking, more exercise, less food wastage, more public transportation—we confront the challenge of behavior change (BC) in pursuit of a better life/ planet on both individual and collective levels. As such a central topic, BC has been extensively studied in different fields [1]. However, existing theories and models tend to anatomize processes and factors into dichotomies (e.g., rational vs. irrational, conscious vs. nonconscious, internal vs. external), and assume a linear, additive relation among them. This approach does not reflect the complexity of human behavior and cognition. BC still remains hugely challenging, particularly in the long run [1].

The present thesis tackles this challenge from a different angle. Behavior lies where the brain, the body and the environment meet, serving as an interface between the cognitive agent and its environment. Thus, it makes sense to examine behavior from a cognitive science point of view. Following this line of reasoning, the thesis approaches BC through the lens of the 4E conceptions of cognition, emphasizing a holistic, processual, and relational view towards behavior. Guided by the 4E conceptions, the project provides new perspectives in search of enabling mechanisms that drive long- term BC. Ultimately, it hopes to gain valuable insights that could benefit diverse fields and aspects of human wellbeing.

The present project is solely theoretical. After reviewing classical BC theories and methods, including their main constructs, development, and limitations, it introduces

briefly the key neural mechanisms underly behavior and motivation. Following this, it analyses the extended, embedded, embodied and enactive nature of behavior, proposing a set of novel perspectives, which lead to new elements for investigating BC. For instance, an embedded perspective requires a behavior to be studied in its context instead of in vacuum, thereby adding to the framework the elements of behavior scenario (BS)—how, when and where it occurs, and behavior web (BW)— depicting key interconnections with other closely related behaviors. An extended, holistic perspective requires extending the unit of investigation (UOI) from the single agent to include the parts of the environment crucial for emergence of the target behavior/ BC. An embodied, enactive perspective treats the environment as a field of affordances, with the goal of creating an enabling environment that helps induce and sustain long-term BC.

From the agent’s internal perspective, intervention schemes include off-loading BC related cognitive efforts from the agent onto the environment, as well as inducing internal motivations to alter the perceived salience of affordances, so that they become more effective in triggering the desired BC.

Finally, based on these new perspectives and elements, a conceptual model and a set of guidelines for intervention strategies will be presented. These will then be elaborated with the help of two examples, one individual- and one group-oriented BC cases put into context.


[1] M. S. Hagger, L. D. Cameron, K. Hamilton, N. Hankonen, and T. Lintunen, Eds., “The Handbook of Behavior Change”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020, doi: 10.1017/9781108677318.