Grounding Motivation for Behaviour Change

Many of the key problems humans are facing today result from desires, habits, and social norms impeding behaviour change. Here, we apply a grounded cognition perspective to these phenomena, suggesting that simulating the consequences of one’s actions plays a key role in them. We first describe the grounded cognition theory of desire and motivated behaviour, and present evidence on how consumption and reward simulations underlie people’s representation of appetitive stimuli and guide motivated behaviour. Then, we discuss how the theory can be used to understand the effects of habits, social norms, and various self-regulation strategies. We suggest conceptualising behaviour change as overcoming the simulations of hedonic and social reward that favour existing habits and behaviours, and as updating situated representations of motivated behaviours in their social context. We discuss how this perspective can help us understand the challenges that people experience in initiating, preparing, and repeating new behaviours, and in high-impact decision making in the face of the status quo. In order to move beyond the socially sanctioned, habitual behaviours that currently threaten human and planetary health, we must understand what motivates them, and how this motivation can be harnessed for the greater good.