Social behaviour patterns and social equilibrium states are often guided by stable values such as social norms. However, changing environmental conditions (e.g. climate warming, resource scarcity) may require behavioural change and the acceptance of new technologies. Antecedents of aggregate behavioural change are value changes that predetermine when new behaviour patterns emerge and a new social equilibrium state can be reached. The paper addresses these phenomena. First, based on a waste recycling model, we explain these phenomena and develop a simple, generic mathematical model describing the basic traits of acceptance–rejection dynamics. Second, we propose a generic model structure for the simulation of acceptance–rejection behaviour that represents the dynamical characteristics of paradigm change processes. We show that a fourth-order potential function is a sine qua non for an adequate representation of a paradigm change. Third, we also explain why the well-known Bass model is unable to capture acceptance and rejection dynamics. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.