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Motivation: explained by BJ Fogg

By | Behavioural Science

Excerpt: In our post ‘BJ Fogg Model explained‘ we have given a concise explanation of the BJ Fogg Behavior Model, which is a persuasion knowledge model. This post is for those who want to dive a bit deeper into the motivation axes of the model. There are a lot of theories of motivation, and there is more than one motivation model. What is so interesting about BJ Fogg’s work is that he has developed a framework that takes human psychology and behavioural design as a starting point.


Motivation explained

In his Behavior Model motivation is one of the three elements – together with ability and trigger – that is needed to change behaviour. Should we love in a perfect world, your user or target group already is motivated to show the behaviour you’d like him or her to engage in. If that’s the case, your job is to make sure the desired behaviour gets easier to do (working on ability). And making sure someone is triggered to act. But if someone isn’t highly motivated, he probably won’t engage in the wanted behaviour.

If you want to understand behaviour from a human-centered point of view, you must understand, as BJ Fogg puts it, that “Motivation has one role in life, to help us so hard things. If it isn’t hard, you don’t need motivation.

BJ Fogg’s advice is to always start at making the desired behaviour easier. As our brains love simplicity and it takes away the burden of being motivated.


BJ Fogg

Image credit AZ Quotes


But you can also boost motivation and sometimes you simply have to. We use Cialdini’s persuasion principles to do so. But what is BJ Fogg talking about when he is talking about motivation? In short, he has identified three types of core motivators all with two sides to them. We’ll explain them here and finish off with insights from Dr. Fogg on when it is best to motivate someone.


Core motivator 1: Sensation

The first core motivator is called sensation and can be divided into two: pleasure and pain. What differentiates this motivator from those that follow is that the result of this motivator is immediate, or nearly so. There’s little thinking or anticipating. People are responding to what’s happening at the moment. Pleasure/pain is a primitive response, and it functions adaptively in hunger, sex, and other activities related to self-preservation and propagation.


Core motivator 2: Anticipation

The second core motivator is called anticipation and also has two sides to it: hope and fear. This dimension is characterized by anticipation of an outcome. Hope is the anticipation of something good happening. Fear is the anticipation of something bad, often the anticipation of loss. This dimension is at times more powerful than pleasure/pain, as is evidenced in everyday behaviour. For example, in some situations, people will accept pain (a flu shot) to overcome fear (anticipation of getting the flu).


Core motivator 3: Belonging

This dimension controls much of our social behaviour, from the clothes we wear to the language we use. It’s clear that people are motivated to do things that win them social acceptance. Perhaps even more dramatically, people are motivated to avoid being socially rejected.


How to motivate someone

Whether you need to work on consumer motivation behaviour or organization motivation behaviour, motivation works the same. The basis you have to start from is to be very specific about the behaviour you want people to do. Don’t say ‘Exercise more,’ but say ‘Do 20 minutes of exercise two times a week”. Don’t say “Eat healthy food,” but say something like “Eat one piece of fruit every day to finish off your lunch.”

This is where motivation comes in, select a specific behaviour that your customers already want to do or pick a behaviour that will help them achieve an outcome that they really want. For example. People may not want to exercise (behaviour), but the result they are looking for with the exercising is for example ‘fitting in their wedding dress’ (outcome). Finding the underlying motivation is also called Job-to-be-Done thinking as developed by Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School.
Coming back to what BJ Fogg said that motivation has only one role, to make hard things easier, it’s not that motivation doesn’t matter. But you don’t simply layer motivation over something you want people to do. As BJ Fogg puts it, you have to be motivation matching. It needs to match what people already want to do. But sometimes you have cases in which you do have to insert motivation into the situation to get people to do something.

When to motivate someone

According to Dr. Fogg, the moment in which you ask someone to do the specific behaviour (trigger moment) is very important. We all have what he calls ‘motivation waves.’ We have all experienced this. Sometimes we get excited about something. It could be something positive, like you watching the Olympics on TV and you think I am going to go out do some exercising myself. Or you watch a family movie, and you think I am going to spend more time with my kid. Or it could be something negative such as a report of a traffic accident on the 8 o’clock news, and you think I have got to get an emergency kit in my car. During those situations, you go through a motivation wave.

Important to know is that as your motivation goes up, you are able to do harder things. When the wave comes back down as it does, you are less able to do hard things.

motivation wave

In short, there are temporary opportunities to make people (or yourself) do hard things. From a business perspective, this means when your customer, your member, your patient, your user is way up surfing the motivation wave that’s the perfect time to trigger them to do hard things.

And you need to do it quickly before the wave goes down, as it will. People are not constantly motivated to exercise or to spend more time with their kid. It will go away, just like a wave comes down. To link it to Kahneman’s work for those who are familiar with this. Motivation has a more cognitive, rational thinking side to it, as ability is all system 1. Smart ability interventions make people do things without thinking.

In this video BJ Fogg briefly explains the concept himself:


How motivation meets ability

If you don’t have to do hard things you don’t need much motivation. But let’s face it: some things are really hard to get started with. Let’s say exercising regularly or losing weight. If you want someone to show hard behaviour, their motivation has to be high. When motivation is low, they are simply not going to do it. If you want to persuade someone to do hard behaviour you have to wait for a motivation wave. That’s a hot trigger moment. So be ready for it.


But the wave is one thing. The most effective persuasion strategy is to be there at the peak of a motivation wave and get someone started down the path of achieving hard behaviour, step-by-step. Maybe you’ve heard of the concept of baby steps. It’s exactly this. As motivation doesn’t always stay up, what you need to do if you want to change behaviour is to get people to do hard things on the top of the motivation wave that will make future good behaviours easier to do.


Think about the exercising or living healthy example. When you are riding the motivation wave for example after seeing sports on TV, it is the best moment for you to go out to buy yourself a yoga mat, get a water bottle and buy fruit. All ability interventions. When your wave drops again, it doesn’t really matter. Your motivation then doesn’t have to be high to make a healthy choice, you have made the desired behaviour easier. You have your water bottle on your desk, fruit in front of you and your yoga mat at home. It’s simple to act more healthy in the future. It feels like a baby step rather than a big leap. And it helps create new routines and habits.

Competing behaviours and motivation

Sometimes you don’t lose motivation, but there is a competing behaviour. We all have several motivation waves at the time that require different behaviour. For example, we can be very motivated to go exercise, but when you get a call from school that your kid has the flu, you’ll be more highly motivated to get your son or daughter then going to the gym (I hope). We assess which behaviour is more important at the time, all the time. In short, we are all choosing between competing behaviours.
That makes it all the more important to make those baby steps, as you can still take the baby steps, the tiny small things even when something else is grabbing your attention.


Would you like to learn more?

If you want to master the science of influence yourself, you could consider enrolling in our two-day course Behavioural Design at our SUE | Behavioural Design Academy. You can download the Academy brochure. Or maybe you currently have a challenge in which you want to influence choice or change behaviour. Please, take a look at our Behavioural Design Sprint. It might be the answer you’re looking for.

Or could be you just would like to get to know us a little better. We happily introduce ourselves here.

BJ Fogg model explained

By | Behavioural Science

Excerpt: this is a reference page on which you can find an explanation of the Behavior Model as developed by professor BJ Fogg who founded the Standford Persuasive Tech Lab. His model shows that it takes three elements to be present at the same time: motivation, ability and a trigger to be able to change behaviour. It’s such an elegant and easy to understand model that we use it on a daily basis to come up with solutions that will lead to positive behaviour.


BJ Fogg model

On this page, we want to give you an introduction to  BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model. Professor Fogg is one of the grounding fathers of the scientifical research in behavioral psychology. Maybe you have heard of the concept persuasive technology or even persuasive design. The BJ Fogg Behaviour model is a smart and easy-to-use tool in this field of expertise. It explains which three buttons you need to push to be able to persuade someone into doing something. Or as BJ Fogg explains it himself three elements that have to be present at the same time to change behaviour: motivation, ability, and trigger.

Advocate in using behavioural psychology for the positive

Important side note to this is that BJ Fogg is a very strong advocate of using insights into human psychology for the positive. And so are we. Our founding mission is to unlock the power of behavioural psychology to nudge people into making positive choices in work, life, and play. Behavioral psychology or behavioural design is a very powerful tool for changing people’s behaviour, let’s all use it for helping people to engage in a better behaviour.

This isn’t so much an article, but more a reference page that you can consult whenever you want to know more or reread about the BJ Fogg model. To make your life a bit easier we have created page sections, so you can easily jump to a particular subject that is of particular interest to you. We also have included links into this page to more detailed information if you want to dive a bit deeper. The page sections:

BJ Fogg Behavior Model explained

BJ Fogg Behavior Model explained

We love working with the Behavior Model because of its elegance. There’s a lot of research on behavioural psychology, and there are a lot of models on behaviour change out there, but things can get pretty complicated. BJ Fogg has made understanding what triggers people to change behaviour very simple. This makes his model very easy to use on a daily basis. What does the model look like?

Bottom line is this: Behavior = motivation x ability x trigger. When the desired behaviour does not happen, at least one of those three elements is missing. The most important implication of this is that using the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) as a guide; you can quickly identify what stops people from performing behaviours that you seek. Also known as the desired behaviour.

If a sufficient degree of motivation to perform a behaviour is matched with the ability to do that behavior, all that is then needed for the behaviour to occur is a trigger. Illustrated in the model as the activation threshold. Triggers placed on the right-hand side of the threshold will lead to behaviour change, triggers to the left will probably show no behaviour change.

Three simple questions to ask

What makes the model so easy to use in practice, is that anytime you want to understand better why a behaviour isn’t happening, all you have to do is ask yourself three simple questions to spot what is lacking for behaviour change to happen:

  1. Is someone motivated enough?
  2. Does someone have the capabilities of performing the desired behaviour?
  3. Did we remind them/ask them to perform the desired behaviour?

Let’s discuss an example. Think about quitting smoking. If someone doesn’t want to stop smoking (low motivation). You can trigger him all you want, but nothing will happen, as quitting smoking is very hard to do (low ability). You’ll end up on the lower right side of the model. If someone is very highly motivated to quit smoking. It is still very hard to do (low ability). So, you should think about how you could make it easier for this person (higher ability). An answer could be by thinking about baby steps. Making the desired behaviour easier by breaking up the desired behaviour in easier to perform steps.

For example putting a button (trigger) on a stop smoking website to easily order free ‘stop smoking patches’ (easy to do, or higher ability). Someone can quickly start with sticking on these patches. And from there on you can persuade him or her to do something harder (example reducing the number of cigarettes smoked on a day).

In the next sections, we will explain the separate elements of the model in some more depth, starting with triggers.

Fogg on Triggers

A trigger is easily put a cue or call to action that causes someone to perform a certain behaviour. A trigger should be noticeable and actionable. In other words, you should be able to spot the trigger (could be with one of all your senses), and you should know what to do when seeing the trigger. A very known trigger is a traffic light. You see it. We all know we have to stop when the light is turned red. And we know we can drive when the light is green.

Another trigger that probably sets yourself in action multiple times a day is that little red notification on your mobile. You see it, and you know what to do: check your email.

But if someone comes up to you and reaches out his hand to you, that’s a trigger too. You see it, and you know it is meant for you to shake his hand.

What’s important to remember is that if you want to change behaviour, you have to trigger the behaviour. Without a trigger, someone can be very motivated and have the ability to perform the behaviour, but there’s simply no call to action.

BJ Fogg has a beautiful expression; he says that our job as a behavioural designer is ‘to put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.’ Which brings us nicely to the next section: motivation.


Fogg on Motivation

There are a lot of theories of motivation out there, most of them explain how motivation is the key concept needed to change attitude, which then leads to behaviour change. What is so interesting about behavioural psychology is that it has unraveled the fact that it works the other way around. People tend to change their attitudes to be consistent with the behaviour they have performed. In other words, if you can trigger certain behaviour, you can change attitudes.

This has everything to do with our brains constantly working hard for us to lower our cognitive overload. And being consistent is one of the mechanisms that help us do that. If you’d like to get some more in-depth insights into the workings of our brain in decision making, make sure to check out our post about system 1 and 2 thinking of Kahneman.

When motivation is high, you can get people to do hard things

But let’s get back to motivation as used in the BJ Fogg model. Motivation in his model is also not about changing attitudes; it is all about changing behaviour. As a person, you can be highly motivated or low motivated. BJ Fogg has identified three core motivators. But the key idea to remember for now is that when motivation is high, you can get people to do hard things. But once motivation drops then people will only do easy things.

Just think about a situation you might have found yourself in. Have you ever had the intention to eat all day healthily? You’re highly motivated to do so. And then it is 4 pm. You start to get hungry. Someone comes in a puts a bowl of potato chips just within your arm’s reach, and your motivation starts to drop. Before you know it you catch yourself eating the chips. It was made so easy; you have performed the behaviour without you even discussing it with your motivation anymore. But the same goes if someone had put a bowl of cucumber slices near you. You would have eaten the cucumber. Nothing to do with your motivation, but with easy to do things.

Start with ability

Dr. Fogg himself recommends to always start with making the desired behaviour easier instead of starting at motivation. Our brain prefers simplicity, which brings us to ability. But do you want to really grasp the concept of motivation? In this post, we tell you all about motivation as researched by BJ Fogg. We use Cialdini’s persuasion principles to boost ability.

Fogg on Ability

To perform the desired behaviour, a person must have the ability to do so. That seems obvious, of course. But designers of persuasive experiences sometimes assume people have more ability than they do.

There are two paths to increasing ability. You can train people, giving them more skills, more ability to do the target behaviour. That’s the hard path. The better path is to make the target behaviour easier to do. BJ Fogg calls this simplicity. In his model, he sometimes replaces ability with simplicity. By focusing on simplicity of the target behaviour, you increase ability. There are six simplicity factors:

1. Time

If a target behaviour requires time and we don’t have time available, then the behaviour is not simple.

2. Money

For people with limited financial resources, a target behaviour that costs money is not simple. That link in the simplicity chain will break easily. For wealthy people, this link in the chain rarely breaks. In fact, some people will simplify their lives by using the money to save time.

3. Physical effort

Behaviours that require physical effort may not be simple.

4. Brain cycles

If performing a target behaviour causes us to think hard, that might not be simple. This is especially true if our minds are consumed with other issues. We all are busy trying to lower our cognitive overload as explained by Kahneman. We generally overestimate how much everyday people want to think.

5. Social deviance

What is meant by social deviance is going against the norm, breaking the rules of society. If a target behaviour requires you to be socially deviant, then that behaviour is no longer simple.

6. Non-routine

People tend to find behaviours simple if they are routine, activities they do over and over again. Also referred to as habits or the autopilot. When people face a behaviour that is not routine, then they may not find it simple. In seeking simplicity, people will often stick to their routine or habits, like buying groceries at the same supermarket, even if it costs more money or time than other options.

300 million button story

One of the most known examples of an ability intervention is the 300 million dollar button story. The story is about Amazon.com. In the early days of the launch of their online shopping platform, they used to have a check-out form that consisted of two fields (email address and password), two buttons (login and register) and one link (forgot password). You would say this is simplicity.

But it turned out this form was preventing customers from buying products. They found out that new customers didn’t want to register right away, and returning customers often forgot their inlog and/or password and gave up after several failed login attempts.

Proceed to check-out

What did they do? They did an ability intervention. They took away the register button and replaced it with a button that said ‘continue’ accompanied with a simple message: “You do not need to create an account to make purchases on our site. Simply click continue to proceed to checkout. To make your future purchases even faster, you can create an account during checkout.” The story goes making the desired behaviour easier simply by changing the button, boosted sales with 45% ($ 300.000.000) in the first year.


To sum Fogg up

The BJ Fogg Behavior Model is a very useful model that derives from human psychology and is very recommendable to use for everyone who is involved in human-centered design or persuasive design. If you want to change behaviour three elements have to happen at the same time: motivation, ability, trigger. Also known as B=MAT. Advice is to start at ability. Making the desired behaviour easier to do, or the undesired behaviour harder to do.

We have looked at all three elements of the model; BJ Fogg explains the Behavior Model himself in this 2 and half minute video if you’d like to do a quick recap:


Would you like to learn more?