Measuring the form of behaviour – a failing of evidence based research in mental health

Is measuring the form of behaviour ever going to bring lasting change in human behaviour?

Measuring the form of behaviour – a failing of evidence based research in mental health

Is measuring form ever going to bring lasting change to human behaviour?

Simple Answer – NO... but why?

In the field of behavioural science, we look at behaviour as having two parts:

  1. The form
  2. The function

The form:

The form of behaviour refers to what a behaviour looks, sounds or feels like; the actual physical activity that can be seen, heard and felt. The form is simply the movement that comes from a body.

For example, a person moves in the activity of hitting, crying, yelling, walking, talking, breathing quickly, cutting oneself, over-eating, under-eating, taking substances etcetera. The possible list of behaviour form is endless, but let it be known that we are all using behaviour form all-day-every-day.

In industries associated with behaviour change they use evidence-based research to measure the form to discern if treatment has been successful and if change has occurred or not.

But has the root cause of the form been addressed, even if change has occurred? Has the second part, i.e., the most important part of behaviour, been addressed? Have we addressed the function?

The Function:

The function of behaviour looks at and addresses:

  1. The reason why the behaviour form was, is or will occur
  2. The root cause of the form

It is the root cause of behaviour that is of far greater importance if we are going to truly achieve lasting change in human behaviour.

Behaviour change is typically related to industries where non-preferred behaviours are used, including but not limited to mental health, education, disability, alcohol and drugs and justice departments. Each of these industries is addressing non-preferred behaviours.

However, when you read statistics it becomes increasingly clear that behaviour and mental health related concerns in each of these industries is getting worse.

This does not make sense: - We have more money being allocated to research than ever before - We have an endless pool of ‘evidence-based’ research suggesting they have the answers.

So what is going on? Why do we have this endless supply of ‘evidence-based research’ yet the statistics are getting worse. Do we not need to ask:

Is evidence-based research all it is cracked up to be?

Is it possible that evidence-based research is failing as it is addressing the form, yet failing to address the root cause of behaviour?

How does it work?

When science measures the form it measures:

1. Short-term change and rarely lasting change

2. Change in one behaviour but not increase in other behaviours and possible new forms

Society calls these changes evidence-based research.

For example: Science may measure a person’s alcohol consumption (i.e. form 1) pre and post intervention. If the alcohol consumption (i.e. form 1) has reduced or stopped post intervention, evidence-based medicine would say the intervention applied was a success.

But do they consider the increase in...

  • Cigarette smoking (form 2)
  • Sugar intake (form 3)
  • Food intake (form 4)
  • Caffeine intake (form 5)?

Could the increase in each of these forms be associated with the reduction of alcohol consumption? Answer: highly likely. But is this measured? Typically, not. Characteristically, the industry would say the alcohol consumption has reduced or stopped and thus we have success and not even consider or address the increase in the other self-harming behaviour forms.

Using the above example, let’s consider some possible reasons why (i.e. the function, the root cause) a person was using alcohol in the first place.

Is it possible the person using alcohol:

  • Is super-sensitive and does not yet feel equipped to deal with all that they are aware of and all that they are feeling?
  • Has experienced an array of losses in their life and they do not yet feel equipped to heal their undealt with grief?
  • Has experienced an endless assortment of rejection in their life and they do not yet feel equipped to understand and accept the rejection they have experienced?
  • Has an endless supply of undealt with hurts that have not yet been healed?

Simply put, is it possible that the root cause (i.e. function) for this person’s alcohol consumption (i.e. form) is that they do not feel equipped to feel all they are feeling, thus they chose through alcohol consumption to self-medicate and provide a feeling of numbness?

If this is in fact a possibility, which it is for all people using alcohol, then the question that needs to be asked is do we not need to address the root cause of the behaviour if we are to get true and lasting change?

In the example provided the initial form was changed, yet four other self-numbing, self-medicating and self-harming forms were increased. To me this is NOT success, in fact it is severely harming.

But what is of utmost concern to humanity as a whole is that the evidence-based science says the applied intervention was successful and thus will apply that same intervention to millions if not billions of people worldwide using the same described behaviour form of alcohol consumption. Thus millions if not billions of people are being taught to self-numb, self-medicate, self-relieve and self-harm and not to address the original root cause of behaviour.


This example could be applied to any single form of behaviour and shows the function (i.e. root cause of behaviour) is of far greater importance than the form (i.e. what the behaviour looks like).

The accepted standard behind evidence-based research shows clearly that while evidence-based research focusses solely on the form of behaviour and fails to address the root cause of behaviour, the industry of evidence-based research is not contributing to truly changing behaviour but merely offering a band-aid by shifting behaviour from one failing form to another.

In the previous example provided, the newly adapted forms of overeating, extreme cigarette and/or sugar consumption is considered more acceptable than the previous form of alcohol consumption.

Are we as a society willing to accept that a person remains in the same dis-ease while the more disturbing form has merely been replaced by a ‘lesser’ disturbing form?

To truly serve humanity to bring about LASTING behaviour change, evidence-based research must address the next step and offer research that is supporting health professionals to address the root cause of any behaviour – not merely measuring the surface struggle of individuals and how they are able to shift from one mis-behaviour to another, leaving them with the dis-ease instead of offering true healing.

Filed under

Evidence-basedMental health

  • By Tanya Curtis, Author, Behavioural Specialist, Assoc Dip Ed. (Child Care), BHlthSci. (BehMgt), MBehMgt, MCoun

    Tanya is dedicated to supporting people to understand and change their unwanted behaviours and live their full potential. Tanya’s deep care and love of people shines through all of the initiative she dedicates herself to.

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