Understanding the importance of cues on behaviour

A key element in understanding a behaviour, and therefore being able to change it, is understanding cues.

A cue, also called a trigger or a prompt, is something that ‘tells’ us when to perform a certain behaviour.

For me cues seem to fall into one of five categories:

  1. Location – when I am in a certain place I perform a certain behaviour
  2. Time – at a specific time of the day I do a certain thing
  3. Emotional state – when I am in mood ‘x’, I enact behaviour ‘y’
  4. Other people – when someone does ‘a’, I do ‘b’
  5. Sensations – when I smell/taste/hear/feel/see ‘x’, I feel like doing ‘y’

In the change literature there appears to be two ways cues are viewed.

For Charles Duhigg, the Pulitzer prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, and the author of the bestselling book, The Power of Habit, cues are one of three parts that make up the ‘Habit Loop’ – a way to explain how an automatic (i.e. unconscious) behaviour occurs.

In explaining the habit loop Duhigg says:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop… becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.

This is what the habit loop looks like.


For Duhigg, a cue is “a trigger for an automatic behavior (sic) to start unfolding.” Understanding cues is therefore vital, as that lead you to perform behaviours you don’t want. If you understand these unconscious cues, you’re in a better position to be able to ‘break’ the connection between that cue and the behaviour.

Another way to look at the roles of cues in behaviour change, is one put forward by one of my favourite models of behaviour change – the Influencer model. This model was first introduced in the fantastic book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, and then also in the follow up Change Anything; the New Science of Personal Success.

In the model the authors talk about the roles of cues (and data) in influencing behaviour change. They have it as a key strategy in Source 6 of the model (Structural Ability) – ‘use the power of data and cues’. What they argue is that by creating new cues you are more likely to enact the new behaviours you want.

This differs from Charles Duhigg’s take that cues kick off ‘automatic behaviours’ (aka habits). It is more about consciously creating the right cue to drive a new behaviour.

This view is also supported by BJ Fogg ,Stanford Professor, founder of he Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab and creator of the Fogg Behaviour Model . As he eloquently puts it, cues :

tell people to “do it now!”

This is exactly the same concept as the Influencer Model. By understanding and creating new cues you are increasing the likelihood that you will enact the behaviour.

Cues fascinate me. In future blog posts I’ll be sharing my thoughts on how to use cues to change behaviours, giving some examples of how technology can be both a help and a hinderance as a cue. I’ll also share some words of wisdom from one of the world’s best rugby players about cues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s