Behavior Chains

A behavior chain is a series of actions that lead to an ultimate behavior. If an ultimate behavior is to be changed, you need to think back and find the sequence of actions that led to it.

Does this sound familiar?

You're upset because you can't understand why you've gained weight, yet whenever you go to the movies, you get a large, buttered popcorn whether you're hungry or not. The calorie cost of your movie snack: 900 calories.

Where to begin?

Pay close attention to your actions. Begin at the end, and then work backwards to break the behavior chain.

Write everything down: what happens, when, who you're with, and where you are. Write all of your actions in sequential order, and trace backwards to each preceding behavior.

Identify the sequence of events in the movie scenario (think backwards)

6. You ate until everything was gone, then felt uncomfortable and guilty
5. You sat down and ate before the movie started.
4. You got extra butter on the popcorn.
3. When asked, you supersized your purchase
2. After buying your ticket, you stopped at the refreshment stand.
1. Before you left you took extra cash for “goodies.”

Problem solving

Where could you break the chain? You have an opportunity to break the chain at every step. For instance, you could:
  • Neglect to bring extra cash for snacks
  • Walk around the crowds at the refreshment stands and head for your seat.
  • Ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” before buying a snack.
  • Buy a smaller amount, skip the extra butter, and drink diet soda instead.
  • Go to the movies with friends who don't snack.
  • Bring a healthy snack to the movies.
  • Chew sugarless gum

Problem solving is crucial.

Come up with alternatives. Try brainstorming several solutions for each step. Then, do a cost/benefit analysis of each solution. Which will work best for you? Remember this: The earlier you make changes in the chain, the easier it is to change the targeted behavior.

Here's another example of breaking a behavior chain - Problem: You have a habit of overeating at parties. (Again, think backwards.)

5. You felt full and guilty.
4. You never said no to trying a new dish.
3. You talked and ate at the same time.
2. You stood near the food table.
1. You wore loose clothing.,

Possible solution:

  • Wear fitted clothes to the party
  • Don't stand near the food.
  • Focus on conversations, not food.
  • Bring a healthy dish to eat.
  • Go out less frequently.
Any of these changes could break the behavior chain. The point is to develop targeted solutions that work for you.


Fabricatore, AN, PhD. Behavior Therapy and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy of Obesity: Is There a Difference? J AM Dietetic Assoc. Jan 2007; 107:92-99.
Join Calorie Count - It's Easy and Free!