Developing an evidence-based online method of linking behaviour change techniques and theoretical mechanisms of action: a multiple methods study

Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; 2021 Jan.


Background: Many global health challenges may be targeted by changing people’s behaviour. Behaviours including cigarette smoking, physical inactivity and alcohol misuse, as well as certain dietary behaviours, contribute to deaths and disability by increasing the risk of cancers, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Interventions have been designed to change these health behaviours with a view to reducing these health risks. However, the effectiveness of these interventions has been quite variable and further information is needed to enhance their success. More information is needed about the specific processes that underlie the effectiveness of intervention strategies.

Aim: Researchers have developed a taxonomy of 93 behaviour change techniques (i.e. the active components of an intervention that bring about behavioural change), but little is known regarding their potential mechanisms of action (i.e. the processes through which a behaviour change technique affects behaviour). We therefore aimed to examine links between behaviour change techniques and mechanisms of action.

Method: First, we conducted a literature synthesis study of 277 behaviour change intervention studies, from which we extracted information on links, described by authors, between behaviour change techniques and mechanisms of action, and identified an average of 10 links per intervention report. Second, behaviour change experts (n = 105) were engaged in a three-round consensus study in which they discussed and rated their confidence in the presence/absence of ‘links’ and ‘non-links’ between commonly used behaviour change techniques (n = 61) and a set of mechanisms of action (n = 26). Ninety links and 460 ‘non-links’ reached the pre-set threshold of 80% agreement. To enhance the validity of these results, a third study was conducted that triangulated the findings of the first two studies. Discrepancies and uncertainties between the studies were included in a reconciliation consensus study with a new group of experts (n = 25). The final results identified 92 definite behaviour change technique–mechanism of action links and 465 definite non-links. In a fourth study, we examined whether or not groups of behaviour change techniques used together frequently across interventions revealed shared theoretical underpinnings. We found that experts agreed on the underlying theory for three groups of behaviour change techniques.

Results: Our results are potentially useful to policy-makers and practitioners in selecting behaviour change techniques to include in behaviour change interventions. However, our data do not demonstrate that the behaviour change techniques are effective in targeting the mechanism of action; rather, the links identified may be the ‘best bets’ for interventions that are effective in changing mechanisms of action, and the non-links are unlikely to be effective. Researchers examining effectiveness of interventions in either primary studies or evidence syntheses may consider these links for further investigation.

Conclusion: To make our results usable by researchers, practitioners and policy-makers, they are available in an online interactive tool, which enables discussion and collaboration (; accessed 1 March 2020. This work, building on previous work to develop the behaviour change technique taxonomy, is part of an ongoing programme of work: the Human Behaviour Change Project (; accessed 1 March 2020).

Funding: This project was funded by the Medical Research Council via its Methodology Panel: ‘Developing methodology for designing and evaluating theory-based complex interventions: an ontology for linking behaviour change techniques to theory’ (reference MR/L011115/1).


Publication types

  • Review