Dr. Aubrey Daniels’s ABC Theory seems to be mimicing how the brain works!

Updated Dec 17, 2006 – added some more details.
Updated Dec 20, 2006 – I had requested April Holladay, a science columnist for USA Today, whose opinion I respect a lot,  to review this post.  Here is what she had to say about this post:
“An outstanding blog (and the one before on the same subject)!  I agree wholeheartedly with your brain analysis and the ABC author’s (Daniel) behavior analysis.  It makes sense.  I also agree with your caveats.  You do good work.”.  Thanks a lot April. I am honored.

I also received some comments from Archana Raghuram (please see the comments section). Based on that I realized something and I decided to move the disclaimer to the top of this post:

Note of caution – Neurology is extremely complex and still not completely understood even by scientists, so please do not take what i am about to say as gospel truth. Having said that, what i am about to say is the most likely way in which the brain is operating per currently published information.

The main purpose of this post is to show that the brain conditions our behavior by using a PIC consequence closely resembling Dr. Daniels’s theory. This post is not intended to be an overarching theory of how the brain works.

I have written about Dr. Aubrey Daniels’s ABC Theory of Behavior (Antecedents, Behaviors, Consequences) in the past. I have been completely taken in by this theory because it seems to offer the best escape route from change management problems that are typical for large organizations. My belief in this theory has been further emboldened through my experience applying it.

As you all know Change Management is the biggest hurdle any Knowledge Management practitioner faces. KM applications are fundamentaly different from routine business applications because of the fact that using KM applications and contributing to KM is typically optional. Therefore, to state the obvious, getting people into the culture of participating in KM is a big Change Management challenge.

We have now applied Dr. Daniels’s ABC Theory in a variety of ways in our KM program and I should say I have been surprised by the dramatic results. IMHO, a theory of this kind has a better chance of adoption if it can be explained using some more rigorous scientific fundamentals. As you know, off late, I have been studying the neuroscience of change management (you may have seen my post on the neuroscience of Not Invented Here syndrome). Today morning, i was reading about Neurotransmitters and suddenly a light bulb went off in my head as a connection between the ABC theory and the operational mechanics of the brain occurred to me. How does the brain makes us do things that are important to us? The simple answer is that it uses neurotransmitters.

What happens is when our brain wants us to do something it uses a neurotransmitter called dopamine. When you see something you like – a good looking person you would like to have sex with or a delicious item of food or chocoloates or ice creams or any of those, dopamine is secreted to make you “want” to have sex or eat. This is the starting point of behavior because without the “want” you are not going to do anything. As dopamine surges you go ahead and do the action (hopefully you are careful when it comes to a “want” of the sex kind :-)). Now what happens is the brain rewards you with another neurotransmitter called Endorphin.

Endorphins are also called “feel good” molecules and they give you the sense of elation or happiness that you experience after you have had great sex or after eating great food. Now once the rewards have been given, the desire increases further with some more dopamine being secreted which makes you repeat the same activity again to experience the neurological reward. [Added next 2 sentences]. It is also possible that endorphins alone are a reward enough for you to repeat the activity and Dopamine is no longer needed after you have performed the action. In other words, Dopamine influences you to do something and once you experience the endorphin reward you will do the activity again even if you don’t receive another ration of dopamine to infuence you again. This is the cycle of human behavior – dopamine, action, endorphin and you can see how closely it resembles the ABC Theory of antecedents, behaviors, consequences. Dopamine creates the antecedents, behavior follows and endorphins are the consequences. Now i started wondering how does this loop get broken because it seems like an infinite loop that we cannot get out of. That is where the third neurotransmitter Serotonin enters the picture. Serotonin is secreted when you are satiated. Without this feeling of satiation you will not be able to leave the dopamine-action-endorphin loop. Dr. Daniels says that changes in behavior are easier to accomplish if the consequences are Positive Immediate and Certain (PIC) and more difficult to accomplish if the consequences are Positive Future Uncertain (PFU). If you think about what the brain does, it is exactly doing what Dr. Daniels is prescribing – give PIC rewards, namely, an endorphin rush. The brain does not wait till the end of the year to release endorphins. Therefore, this need for PIC rewards seem to be hardcoded in the brain. In sum, i am now more convinced that Change Management programs that leverage  Dr. Daniels’s theory are likely to succeed. Hope you are convinced as well.

Notes & References:
1. Dopamine, Endorphin and Serotonin are very important neurotransmitters and they help explain a lot of human mental ailments like depression, attention deficit disorder, addiction etc.

 2. The chemistry of desire in the Time magazine  discusses the role of dopamine.

 3. The chemistry world magazine discusses the Chemistry of Love including the role of Serotonin.

4. The Biology of Joy – a discussion that includes the role of endorphins in pleasure.

5. The Wikipedia – links provided inline above.


  1. Anonymous said December 18, 2006, 10:59 am:

    I have some questions

    1) You are on a diet and you indulge in chocklates. You don’t feel good aftewards. This should ideally stop us next time, but the tendency is to indulge more.

    2)Does Serotinin always get secreted. How does over indulgence occurs. Like too much obsession with blogging,money,TV,food etc. Infinite loops seem to be very common in these areas.

    3) Once you get people to change, how long would PIC be required. It is not possible to continiously

    – Archana

  2. Anonymous said December 18, 2006, 11:15 am:


    Good questions.

    As i said the brain is quite complex. Per current research, brain has been wired to help us survive in a world where food is hard to come by. So we are wired to eat when food is available and are naturally drawn to sugar and fat-laden foods like chocolates, ice creams and other junk food. The endorphin rush that you get when you have these, wires you further to eat these stuff. You can definitely resist this because you can and you do overcome the effects of these neurotransmitters (dieting is an example). My guess is that you would use your cerebral cortex to control your neurotransmitter-led behavior.

    On the other side obsession happens because serotonin levels are low meaning you are not satiated. If you read the chemistry of love link that i have above you can see that lovers behave like obsessive-compulsive because it appears serotonin levels are low for people in love-failures.

    In my view PIC is needed only as long as people need to change their behaviors. Once it becomes the new preferred behavior, it is unlikely they will go back. But what is the harm in continuing to give PIC rewards? It always helps to give positive reinforcements.

    Overall my attempt is to show how closely Dr. Daniels’s theory resembles the brain’s functioning in certain areas. To produce an overarching theory of how the brain functions is out of scope of the above post as well as beyond my capabilities at this point.

    Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran’s books would probably serve that purpose better as he is one of the world’s foremost researchers in this field.

  3. Anonymous said December 20, 2006, 9:53 am:

    Hello Sukumar,

    This is really great, congratulations


  4. Anonymous said December 20, 2006, 10:01 am:

    I just had one more question. I am not sure if it is within the scope of your theroy. I am just curious thats all.

    You have said

    “It is also possible that endorphins alone are a reward enough for you to repeat the activity and Dopamine is no longer needed after you have performed the action. In other words, Dopamine influences you to do something and once you experience the endorphin reward you will do the activity again even if you don’t receive another ration of dopamine to infuence you again.”

    Does this mean that after the first time any temptation you feel is only psychological not neurological. Which would imply that it would be most difficult to resist temptation for the first time? Once the dopamine stops wouldn’t be easier to resist the temptation.

    – Archana

  5. Anonymous said December 21, 2006, 12:54 am:

    Thanks Archana for your good wishes and support. Good question Archana. I think you are right, future actions in response to a similar stimulus is likely to be psychological. It is not clear how many times dopamine has to be released to condition your behavior. So it is possible that dopamine is not released once you get attuned to new behavior.

    I am currently exploring how fear works. When you are afraid Adrenaline is released and that forces you to take a certain type of action famously known as “fight or flight”. I am investigating whether the brain does anything depending how successful the outcome of your action is. Once i do some reading up, i will post that.

  6. Anonymous said December 21, 2006, 10:10 am:

    I read somewhere that fear response is controlled by the Limbic system which is below the cortex and not a thinking part of the brain. That is why reaction to fear is unreasonable.

    When I was a child I went to my aunts house who had a huge dog. It jumped all over me. Since then I have had this terrible fear for dogs. I am trying hard to over come it, nothing seems to be working. I can will myself not to show any external reaction but all other internal symptoms persist.

    Looking forward to your next post on the subject


  7. Anonymous said December 22, 2006, 12:00 am:

    Thanks Archana. You are right. I think this whole neurotransmitter-led behavior must be “limbic”. With humans having an advanced frontal lobe and other newer brain capabilities we can overcome some of what the neurotransmitters do to us.