In one study we will examine two important persuasion concepts: TACT and habit. The TACT, the Target Action Context Time or Who does What Where and When, is the crucial first decision in practical persuasion. If you cannot define your TACT with this specificity, your persuasion will probably fail. Habit is an automatic TACT that occurs with little WATTage or self control from the Other Guy. With many behaviors (diet, exercise, study, recurring paperwork, on time at work, housework, chores, and on and on) you want both a TACT and a habitual TACT. Just Do It! But what is the TACT in the habit? The researchers approach this question as it relates to exercise.

Some researchers have theorized that exercise can become habitual (i.e., automatically triggered by contextual cues), but the meaning of habitual exercise has been debated (Hagger, Rebar, Mullan, Lipp, & Chatzisarantis, 2014; Maddux, 1997). Aarts, Paulussen, and Schaalma (1997) conceptualized habitual exercise as specific actions (e.g., going for a run, going to the gym) that occur when the goal to exercise is automatically triggered by a situational cue. The exercise occurs with conscious awareness but is mentally efficient and follows a specific pattern. The notion of habits being automated (completed without awareness or control; Bargh, 1989, 1992) also suggests that instigation determines execution through a cascade of habitual actions, each action triggering the next. These conceptualizations of automated behavior have not been empirically examined in health domains, but they suggest that exercise instigation may determine exercise execution rather than the two being separately determined.

Note my added boldface in the quote. If you want Other Guys to exercise more, you tend to think the TACT is the physical act itself: Running or lifting or biking. But, as part of the TACT habit you realize that you need more than just the exercise behavior, you also need to make the decision to exercise habitually, too. When you persuade Other Guys to both instigate and execute TACTs as a habit, you are much more likely to get the ultimate downstream action you want: Physical activity.

At first take this seems like splitting hairs. Obviously no one can do something unless they decide to do it – instigation and execution are just two different ways of saying the same thing. Well, let’s test that in an observational design.

The researchers grab two convenience samples of adults at a college. The first sample completes a self report survey that breaks the exercise TACT into those two components of instigation and execution. Here’s the wording.

TACT Habit Survey

The survey is answered with a 5 point disagree-agree scale and summed so that a higher score means more habitual and automatic while a lower score means more WATTage and thinking. The pretest on the first sample is good with the simple scale showing good reliability. Now, the researchers grab second convenience sample of 124 university students, faculty, and staff for the main study.

All the Other Guys actively exercised and got paid to participate in the study. They completed the instigation and execution surveys, then kept exercise diaries for a month. The researchers also monitored the Other Guys for their diary reports and sent email reminders to keep Other Guys up to date on that reporting. Finally, the researchers asked a simple one item question about exercising as companion measure to the diary entries. (The researchers also collected a self report on another variable called Patterned Exercise which I won’t detail here since it had no impact on the results, but that name will appear in our discussion and I don’t want you to get confused.)

In summary, exercising adults complete the instigation and execution habit surveys. They complete exercise diaries for a month. We can now count the change on whether there is any difference between this TACT habit between instigation and execution. Here’s the main count.

When modeling daily diary frequency, instigation habit strength was the only predictor (β = 0.31), t(3,108) = 2.56, p = .01 (execution habit strength: β = 0.06, t[3,108] = 0.06, p = .62; patterned exercise action: β = 0.16, t[3,108] = 1.79, p = .08). When modeling self-reported exercise frequency, only instigation habit strength was a predictor (β = 0.39), t(3,107) = 3.16, p = .002 (execution habit strength: β = 0.05, t[3,107] = 0.44, p = .66; patterned exercise action: β = 0.06, t[3,107] = 0.69, p = .49).

You see that whether from the diaries or the simple one item self report, that instigation is different from execution and furthermore that instigation is what drives TACT completion in this observational study. I cannot open an exact Windowpane on the beta weights here because the researchers don’t provide enough information. You see the beta for instigation is around .3-.4 and the others are functionally zero, so I’d guess we’ve got a Medium Windowpane, about a 35/65 difference.

Thus, these data argue that if you want a habitual TACT, you need to focus not just on the ultimate downstream action (exercise in this case), but the upstream thinking about getting off the sofa and instigating that ultimate downstream action. When Other Guys make instigation a habit, you will get more execution.

In this case, the results mean that Other Guys who automatically choose to activate a habit, in other words, instigate, then they will exercise more. If that instigation process is not habitual, but instead requires WATTage, self control, that whole To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy, then Other Guys do less exercise.

To evaluate this study, we need to mind limitations. This is a one shot observational study which is not replicated. Note the absence of randomization. Note the absence of experimental manipulation; the researchers did not do persuasion to create high and low instigation and then count exercise. This is a correlational design and even with that Medium Windowpane, it could be a lucky shot. More research required!

But, the results are consistent with a ton of existing theory and research. We constantly observe good experimental studies that show some great intervention that gets more of the TACT, but when we look more carefully we realize that the instigation part is controlled in the lab. If you want the same effect in the mess of life, you see that the Other Guys need not only the intervention (usually with app’s n’ iGizmos), but also require WATTage and self control; they have to decide to initiate the thing.

The results from this study show the folly that arises when you create execution habits, but not instigation habits. As a small example, I can see this difference between Melanie and myself. While we both exercise on a regular basis, she is much more frequent and intense in her habit compared to me. And, a huge difference in that is with instigation. Melanie has built an instigation habit where she doesn’t even think about To Run Or Not To Run, she just does the same thing at the same time every time. By contrast, I almost always think about whether and when and what kind of exercise I could do. And, I often think my way out of doing any exercise.

When thinking about persuasion that aims at behavior change, not just changes in thinking (attitudes, beliefs, intentions) or feeling (emotions, moods), we see that you can get too focused on just the ultimate action. You need to also do persuasion on what initiates that ultimate action. Almost all Other Guys have the gun of exercise, they just think too much about pulling the trigger. You’ve got to make that thinking about initiation as automatic and habitual as the ultimate behavior you want.

Consider this with the Skinner Box and the When-Do-Get. A lot of behavior persuasion focuses only upon the Do (exercise) – Get (fitness, better mood, clearer mind) and fail to remember the When. You need all three elements. The When part is the instigation, the initiation, the trigger, or more technically the stimulus that signals the Do-Get applies.

The researchers in this study are making a distinction between instigation versus execution. Realize that both elements are in a well defined TACT. Remember – Who does What Where and When. The What is almost always the ultimate behavior you want. The Where and When could be called “instigation” if you wish. What this study shows is that you need to put as much persuasion on the Where and When as you do with the Who and What.

Phillips, L. A., & Gardner, B. (2016). Habitual exercise instigation (vs. execution) predicts healthy adults’ exercise frequency. Health Psychology, 35(1), 69-77.


You might obtain a copy of the paper at this ResearchGate address.


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