An ontology-based modelling system (OBMS) for representing behaviour change theories applied to 76 theories

Joanna Hale*, Robert West, Susan Michie, Janna Hastings, Carmen E. Lefevre, Artur Direito, Lauren Connell Bohlen, Cristina Godinho, Niall Anderson, Silje Zink, Hilary Groarke

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Background: To efficiently search, compare, test and integrate behaviour change theories, they need to be specified in a way that is clear, consistent and computable. An ontology-based modelling system (OBMS) has previously been shown to be able to represent five commonly used theories in this way. We aimed to assess whether the OBMS could be applied more widely and to create a database of behaviour change theories, their constructs and propositions. Methods: We labelled the constructs within 71 theories and used the OBMS to represent the relationships between the constructs. Diagrams of each theory were sent to authors or experts for feedback and amendment. The 71 finalised diagrams plus the five previously generated diagrams were used to create a searchable database of 76 theories in the form of construct-relationship-construct triples. We conducted a set of illustrative analyses to characterise theories in the database. Results: All 71 theories could be satisfactorily represented using this system. In total, 35 (49%) were finalised with no or very minor amendment. The remaining 36 (51%) were finalised after changes to the constructs (seven theories), relationships between constructs (15 theories) or both (14 theories) following author/expert feedback. The mean number of constructs per theory was 20 (min. = 6, max. = 72), with the mean number of triples per theory 31 (min. = 7, max. = 89). Fourteen distinct relationship types were used, of which the most commonly used was 'influences', followed by 'part of'. Conclusions: The OBMS can represent a wide array of behavioural theories in a precise, computable format. This system should provide a basis for better integration and synthesis of theories than has hitherto been possible.
Original languageEnglish
Article number177
Number of pages17
JournalWellcome Open Research
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Behaviour
  • Behaviour change
  • Modelling
  • Ontology
  • Theoretical synthesis
  • Theory


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