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What is the COM-B model of behaviour?

Recently we came across the COM-B model of behaviour. We thought this was a useful approach to understanding behaviour change so in this episode, we’re exploring the COM-B model, how it came together, and how it’s been used.

Michie et al. (2011) provides an overview of the COM-B model and a framework for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. It made sense to start with a model of behaviour but they wanted to take this a bit further and capture the range of mechanisms that could be involved in change, both internal (so psychological and physical factors) as well as those that involve changes to the external environment. The authors identified three components to any behaviour: capability, opportunity and motivation. They put this into a mode that says to make a change we need to feel we are able to do so, have the opportunity to be able to change and have the need or want to be able to change (compared to current behaviours). They realised that behaviour change interventions needed to target one or more of these components to maintain behaviour change. 

Let’s look at the details of each of these components. There’s a really useful guide available from the organisation called Social Change (based in the UK) that we’ve drawn on for this. Capability describes whether we have the knowledge, skills and abilities required to be able to make a change. There’s two parts: psychological capability (which is our knowledge, psychological strength and skills) and physical capability (which is as it sounds – our physical strengths, skills and stamina). When it comes to opportunity these are the external factors that allow us to make a change. Again there are two parts to this: our physical environment (think time, location and resources) and social opportunity (which covers cultural norms and social cues). The last component, motivation, covers the internal process that influences our behaviour, both reflective processes (like making plans, evaluating options and our experiences) and automatic motivation (which is our desires, impulses and inhibitions). They named the model COM-B, which stands for capability, opportunity, motivation and behaviour, COM-B.

From Michie et al. (2011).

The fascinating part of this work is that the behaviour change researchers didn’t stop with just coming up with a model of behaviour change. They were interested in designing interventions for change as well. So they created the behaviour change wheel that sits around this COM-B model of change. There are three layers to the wheel. The first is the COM-B model which helps us identify what components might need to be targeted. Then around the model is the second layer that has nine intervention types to choose from based on analysis of which components of change might need to be targeted. The third layer, the outer layer, identifies seven policy categories that support the delivery of these interventions.

So let’s have a quick look at those second and outer layers. The intervention types they identified are: 

  1. Education which is about increasing knowledge or understanding 
  2. Persuasion which is using communication to try and produce positive or negative feelings and action
  3. Incentivisation which uses rewards for behaviour we want to see
  4. Coercion which is about putting punishments or costs in place
  5. Training which is about developing skills
  6. Restriction which reduces opportunities to engage in other behaviours
  7. Environmental restructuring so changing the physical or social context
  8. Modelling which is about providing examples for people to see and imitate, and,
  9. Enablement which is either increasing support or reducing barriers.

The outer layer consists of different policies. These are: 

  1. Communication/ marketing, so as it sounds, it’s about using print or electronic media
  2. Guidelines, again as it sounds, creating documents that outline the behaviour we want to see
  3. Fiscal so using the tax system to reduce or increase the financial cost 
  4. Regulation (we’re pretty familiar with this one!)
  5. Legislation, again also very familiar
  6. Environmental/ social planning which involves designing and/or controlling the physical or social environment, and, 
  7. Service provision.

We thought this was pretty interesting because it takes the next step in connecting behaviour change to extension interventions! Given that the model was developed by health researchers, most of the work that has been done that has used this approach has been in the health sector. But we did find a couple of bits of research from agriculture that used this approach and we wanted to tell you about those.

This year a group of researchers in the UK published some work exploring farmers’ use of helmets on quad bikes, as in motorbikes with four wheels (Irwin et al., 2022). Across the world, helmet wearing is recommended and certainly helps mitigate the risks associated with quad bikes. In the UK, helmet wearing isn’t mandated by law so how would we convince farmers to wear them? The researchers created a survey to explore attitudes to helmet wearing using the COM-B model. They were able to analyse survey results from 211 farmers from the UK and Ireland. They found that farmers were less likely to wear a helmet when they thought they could control the risk, it interfered with work activities and was uncomfortable. There were social norms about riding without a helmet and when the farm work was busy, helmet wearing got forgotten. However, if helmet wearing prompted feelings of safety and they felt there was an obligation to wear one, then farmers would wear helmets. They were able to categorise these into the COM-B model and came up with some potential interventions to increase helmet use. 

The second piece of work looked at the use of biopesticides and biofertilizers amongst 133 Dutch and 63 German farmers via a survey (Tensi et al., 2022). They were able to map the results into the COM-B model. But they found they needed different approaches for understanding those farmers who were already using these products, as opposed to farmers who had potential to use them. They identified motivation and capability as critical drivers, but opportunity as a barrier because of the lack of support for the products. They highlighted that using the COM-B model and behaviour change wheel was very resource heavy and not able to be easily translated into a survey. 

So where does that leave us as Enablers of change? Well we think this is a useful model to understand and we like the link to extension interventions and being clear about the relationship between behaviour and an intervention. We do note the concerns raised and feel that it would be good to see some more studies exploring this. If you know of any, please let us know!

Well, you’ve heard our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below and tell us about your experiences with the COM-B model, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversationjoin in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change post. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new posts are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they too can join the conversation!


A guide on the COM-B Model of Behaviour. Social Change. Available online. 

Irwin, A., Mihulkova, J., & Berkeley, S. (2022). ‘No-one else wears one:’Exploring farmer attitudes towards All-Terrain Vehicle helmets using the COM-B model. Journal of safety research, 81, 123-133. Available online.

Michie, S., Van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation science, 6(1), 1-12. Available online.

Tensi, A. F., Ang, F., & van der Fels-Klerx, H. J. (2022). Behavioural drivers and barriers for adopting microbial applications in arable farms: Evidence from the Netherlands and Germany. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 182, 121825. Available online. 

The behaviour change wheel website. 

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Graham Harris
Graham Harris
1 year ago

A very interesting topic – as suggested it would be good to see more research on it’s potential use in agriculture and natural resource management. It does sound a very logical approach and I do like the link through to potential interventions. It might also be useful to use the model to review the success or otherwise of past extension programs.

Robert Gideon Odendi
Robert Gideon Odendi
4 months ago

Great presentation on COM-B Model. I am a PhD Student, I have used COM-B model to develop my proposal for implementation science.

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