A Biopsychosocial Model Of Behaviour

Predicting behaviour is an interesting enterprise and is one of the kingpins of the study of psychology. In this article we will use a model proposed by Alan Watkins (2013), adapted and slightly adjusted to fit the terminology generally used in the field of psychology. In his model, behaviour is like the roof of a building, and the building represents the person’s behavioural skills. People generally think that possessing the necessary skills is enough to demonstrate appropriate behaviour. However, merely having a skill does not guarantee that it will be used.

A Biopsychosocial Model Of Behaviour. Image © 2016 P.L. Houtekamer

You need to believe you will be effective before you actually demonstrate a particular skill

Before actually demonstrating a particular skill, we need to believe that applying it will have the desired effect. This requires confidence in our own ability: So-called ‘self-efficacy’ (Bandura, 1977). Being a belief places self-efficacy in the cognitive (or thinking) domain. Whereas skills and behaviour are visible, cognitions aren’t. They are under the surface and form the first cellar of our building, as depicted in the figure above. In other words, the way we think influences which skills we actually employ, and thereby our behaviour.

Feeling has a larger impact on thinking than thinking has on feeling

Our thoughts and our beliefs don’t just fall out of the sky. They are coloured by the way we feel – both how we have felt in the past as well as how we feel right now, in the here-and-now. The second cellar is therefore the constant ebb and flow of ever-changing feelings. You need more than only to think that you can do something; you need to feel it. And that belief is emotional more than cognitive. Also, your mood will determine which skills you choose to implement and which you do not. This is why there are more arrows from the emotional landscape to the cognitive domain than the other way around: How we think does influence how we feel, but nowhere nearly as strongly as how much the emotions affect our thinking. And our self-esteem, self-confidence and our mood even directly influence how, and how well, we are able to execute the skills we have at our disposal.

Our body is wired to feel emotions physically

Still not done, though. In the book Observational Listening (van Alphen, 2016) we deal in some depth with what causes these feelings to constantly change. In brief, this is due to basic emotional reflexes: Our body is wired to react in a certain way, whereby we actually feel our feelings physically. With these basic emotional reflexes, we now have the third cellar under our building. And under our third cellar we finally find the foundations: Physiology. It is via our senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and via our body that stimuli, transformed into electrical, electromagnetic and biochemical signals, trigger our basic emotional reflexes. And these stimuli are what we encounter in the outside world and our inside world, and are due to our behaviour.

A biopsychosocial circle

We have now completed the circle: Our behaviour elicits a reaction from the environment, which we perceive via our senses, leading to electrical, electromagnetic and biochemical changes in our body. These in turn trigger the basic emotional reflexes, which bring about change in our emotional landscape, resulting in the experience of a feeling. This feeling affects our cognitive apparatus, and which skills we choose to implement, again influencing our behaviour.

What, then, do we mean by a biopsychosocial model of behaviour? The term ‘biopsychosocial’ comes from a broader paradigm about how to view the human being. For example, in the medical model it’s all about the body, and the body can be seen as a machine: Function and dysfunction are the result of a properly or improperly running machine (the body). The biopsychosocial paradigm takes a more holistic view. By no means a new view; Tomkins had already worked using this perspective in the 1950s (Tomkins, 1995). The paradigm regained popularity towards the turn of the century with proponents such as Kiesler (1999) suggesting that mental health should be viewed more broadly than merely from the medical model point of view. In the biopsychosocial paradigm, human experience is the result of an interaction between three areas:

  • Biological
  • Psychological
  • Social

Both positive and negative experiences arise due to changes in one or more of these areas. However, the interrelatedness of these areas sees to it that any change in one area automatically induces change in the other two areas. Human experience is therefore the result of both the operation of and the interaction between these various areas.

To translate the model of behaviour into these three areas: The biological area is represented by the senses, the physiology and the basic emotional reflexes. The psychological area is represented by the emotions and cognitions. The social area is whatever is in the exterior world: Not only are the person’s skills demonstrated as behaviour, but also the reactions this behaviour elicits.


The biopsychosocial model of behaviour illustrates how biology, intrapsychological processes and the social environment influence one another in how behaviour comes to be. It puts the importance of the emotions centre stage, as merely having skills is no guarantee they will actually be put into use: You will need to believe in your ability to influence the environment, and your emotional state influences these thoughts. When viewed from the point of view of communication, understanding this interaction helps us understand the importance of emotions and thereby better understand the behaviour our conversational partner displays.


  • Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review 84, 191-215.
  • Kiesler, D. J. (1999). Beyond the disease model of mental disorders. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
  • Tomkins, S. (1995). The quest for primary motives: Biography and autobiography of an idea. In E. Demos, Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Watkins, A. (2013). Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership.London: Kogan Page Limited.

Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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