Why some behaviours are really difficult to change and what to do about it: CEOS Theory
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Why some behaviours are really difficult to change and what to do about it: CEOS Theory

CEOS Theory

A new theory called CEOS Theory focusses on trying to understand one of the problems that science has been grappling with in recent years.  Some behaviour change is difficult to maintain, for example giving up smoking, sticking to a diet, maintaining a new fitness regimes, changing work habits etc. and this theory looks at the reasons why.



This post is a curated version of a research briefing sent to members in March 2017

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CEOS Theory: an overview

CEOS Theory is the first theory to take into account the interaction between conscious and non-conscious influences on behaviour and is aimed at explaining and exploring the limits of rational choice on behaviour modification. CEOS is an acronym for Context, Executive and Operational Systems.


There are two overarching systems or sets of functions within the brain that control behaviour:


  1. The Executive System and
  2. The Operational System.


The Executive System comprises a set of executive functions which control behaviours requiring conscious thought and cognitive control in order to operate.  The Operational System is a largely unconscious set of functions.


Most of the time these two systems work and collaborate with each other to produce our behaviour. When we introduce behaviour change, particularly changes of habituated behaviour (habits) a set of conflicts is created between the Executive (conscious) and Operational (unconscious) functions within the brain. These changes in habituated behaviour are known as HTMs or Hard to Maintain behaviours; overriding the unconscious operational system requires constant high levels of effort and attention from the executive functions for extended periods of time. .


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Executive System


Our neuronal Executive System is in essence a set of cognitive processes all of which are required for tasks like planning, reasoning and problem solving.  These are:


  1. attentional control
  2. cognitive inhibition
  3. inhibitory control
  4. working memory
  5. cognitive flexibility


Operational System


The Operational System is the set of functions that allows us to go about our daily business without really thinking about it. It is the unconscious mind going about its daily routines. All motor processes such as walking, sitting down and standing up are managed by the Operational System – one does not need to think through the process of bending each leg and foot in a certain way and swapping one’s balance from one leg to the next as one takes a stride. The smoker does not need to think through the process of rolling and lighting their 10,000th cigarette – it comes as ‘second nature’.


Behaviour Change



Comparison of the operational and executive systems


Operational System (OS) Executive System (ES)
Acts to maintain or regain homeostatic balance. Reactive to the environment. Goal directed. Can be reflective, proactive, deliberative and imagine possible futures.
High capacity and parallel processing. Exists largely at birth and is refined. Limited capacity and typically sequential processing. Develops gradually in childhood with language.
Operates at all relevant times. Only operates when invoked, which may be less than needed.
Bottom-up associative processing in relation to needs: determines affective force of events. Top-down processing using second-order representation of the world (language). Logical, rule based.
Processing occurs automatically and out of consciousness through associative processes linked to similarity and contiguity. Conscious of OS inputs, memories, goals, beliefs, and sometimes steps of processing. Representations of past, present, and/or future influence options considered and subsequently goal choice.
Required to generate behaviour. Can generate action independent of ES. Can initiate behaviour when it generates more affective force in the OS than from competing processes.
Learning is result of conditioning. Can be rapid for high-intensity events. Learning is rule based and can be rapid and can even anticipate the reality to which it is applied.
Changes behaviour in relation to negative affect regardless of contingency with past behaviour, but only to contiguous positive affect. Capacity to link non-contiguous effects of behaviour so as to influence subsequent behaviour (i.e. to anticipate possible futures).
Communicates via feelings to ES and expressions (vocal, facial and bodily) to others. Distinctions between concepts emerge as a function of associative links (connotations) and evoked action tendencies. Communicates with language and through stories generates affective force for propositions. Distinctions between related concepts achieved through rules of inclusion and exclusion.
No sense of negation. Associative links to what is present. Faster and stronger associative links to ES concepts, than to their negation. Parameterises “Not”. Can deal with absence in current environment using concept of absence. Negation dealt with according to rules of logic.



Hard to maintain processes


Smoking for example is reputedly one of the hardest behaviours of all to quit. Smoking is an unhealthy process that has become an impulse and a (maladaptive) method of emotion regulation. Smokers often have a set of routines they engage in such as having a cigarette with their morning coffee or in the evening with a glass of wine, or following an intense meeting at work. The same applies to any habituated behaviour, like eating, working habits or even cognitive habits, like habituated thinking processes and patterns.


Breaking these habits, the Hard to Maintain behaviours, is often not easy as it sets up a conflict between the executive and operational functions within the brain.


Breaking habits


Interaction of Operational System and Executive System


The interaction between the Operational System and the Executive System provides a set of behavioural responses dependant on how in sync or in conflict the two systems are. The Hard to Maintain behaviours sit at the top left of the picture and are harder for the Executive System to manage than for the hard to acquire/sustain habits such as a skilled hobby like sailing or skiing. Often during behaviour change people are doing two things at once:


  1. Trying to supress the old behaviours and
  2. Trying to acquire what are known as Hard to Acquire behaviours



This gives a more complete understanding of the task of changing ingrained behaviours and habits.


The Operational and Executive Systems Matrix


CEOS Theory

Context and emotions


Context adds the trigger and motivation/demotivation for this change.


Our emotions are often the drivers and context behind much of our behaviour. If we feel negatively about something we will often avoid it (an away from motivation) and if we feel positive about something this can set up a towards motivation. Negative or away from motivations can be more powerful than towards motivations in many contexts.

“Negative feelings tend to occur when the [Executive System] is attempting to generate action inconsistent with the underlying wants/needs or is not responding to them.” The conflict created between the executive and operational functions often generates negative emotional responses.  This makes it even more difficult when engaging in behaviour modification of Hard to Maintain behaviours.


On the other hand “Positive feelings are more likely to be indications of progress or of success.”


Why some change is hard


Why some change is so hard


The primacy of the operating systems and functions (because they operate at an unconscious level) is a major factor in determining why people find some behavioural change so hard. This is particularly exacerbated when people are deprived of positive emotions and emotional feedback around change, due either to past traumatic or negative experiences of change or just a lack of positive awareness, feedback or vision of progress during the change process. Additionally, due to experience or belief, many people have low expectations of future rewards and therefore little motivation to change.


This lack of positive emotional reinforcement for change tends to render many people more susceptible to the allure of short-term emotional operating system benefits over longer-term gains.


It is, after all, both harder work to maintain the level of constant attention and application needed for the executive functions to override the unconscious operational functions, and it is also tougher emotionally to keep going without immediate reward than it is to let go of the tension and relax, allowing the operating systems to take over and run things, thus gaining the immediate gratification of the habituated comfort.


This, together with the push and pull of positive and negative emotions, is why habituated behaviours are often difficult to change.


How to predict unethical management behavior


Creating behavioural change using CEOS Theory


Borland has found that there is a process for changing HTMs or Hard to Maintain Behaviours:


  1. Problem diagnosis
  2. Goal setting
  3. Taking action
  4. Maintenance
  5. Evaluation of progress
  6. Repeated efforts


Problem diagnosis

The person needs to have enough information/feedback to be able to conclude that they have a problem which requires behavioural change.

Goal setting

They then need to:

  1. Decide what to do about it
  2. Create a goal or vision of the end point – how they want to behave
  3. Commit to achieving that goal – being realistically optimistic.


Taking action 

The individual then needs to create an action script and refine it in the light of learning. This step also includes rearranging and rehearsing the internal stories or rationalisations about the new and old behaviours, creating positive emotions around the new behaviour and building a practised routine.



There are two phases to maintenance of the new and developing action scripts or behaviours:


  1. A period of self-control to maintain abstinence of the old behaviour
  2. Reorientation of self-identity and reconditioning of the behaviours.


These require the development of maintenance scripts to track and nudge the new behaviours into new routines. The more explicit and vocalised these maintenance scripts are, the better.


Evaluation of progress

Tracking progress is particularly important for Hard to Maintain behaviours. This process also includes socially normalising the new behaviour, so that the old behaviours are de-normalised or reduced in terms of visibility and acceptance/desirability and the visibility and acceptance/desirability of the new behaviour set is increased. Social acceptance of the behaviour is vitally important here.


Repeated effort

One of the characteristics of Hard to Maintain behaviours is repeated relapses in behaviour. Acceptance of failure followed by repeated effort and reapplication of action-scripts is important if the behaviour is to change permanently. This requires resilience and the ability to keep going despite continual failure, often for extended periods.


Changing behaviour



CEOS Theory is essentially a pulling together of work from a number of disciplines together with a new interpretation and new evidence from more recent studies. The major finding by Borland is the explicit splitting of the Executive functions of the brain from the operating systems and creating an understanding of the process of changing Hard to Maintain behaviours.


References – available to members



Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page