Intention-Behavior-Gap and Intention Implementations – Sheeran & Webb (2016)

An article by David Scholz and Leonie Kott (translated by Anne Ridder)

Don’t you know those situations? You are trying to live more environmentally friendly by reducing your waste production. However, just as you step into your local bakery store and receive your order in three different bags, with pieces of cake separated by plastic layers and your coffee to go served with a plastic lid, you fail to achieve your new intentions. Why does that happen so often even though you were determined to follow your goal? One explanation is the “intention-behavior-gap”. In the following article, we will go into detail, explain the phenomenon, and give some tips and tricks to handle the obstacles on your way to achieve your intentions.

What is the Intention-Behavior-Gap?

The intention-behavior-gap describes why people sometimes fail to behave in a way they would like to, even though of existing, strong intentions (Sheeran & Webb, 2016). Research has found that most people’s intentions (e.g. I want to produce less waste) are weakly associated with their actions (e.g. to tell the baker that I do not need a bag) (Webb & Sheeran, 2006).

How Does the Gap Develop?

Sheeran & Webb (2016) came up with an overview for the actual state of research, which shows that there are two main reasons why intentions often do not result in behavior. Firstly, the quality of the intention needs to be assessed. The quality is determined by three factors:

a) The concreteness and difficulty of the goal
Does the goal reflect a concrete behavior? Is it easy to reach?

b) The background of the intention
Is the intention for change internal or external? Is it in accordance with your values?

c) The stability (time) of the intention
Does the intention already exists for a long time span?

Even intentions of good quality do not always lead to intended behavior. Self-regulatory difficulties make up the second criteria to successfully implement your intentions. This means, there can be problems with implementing your intentions because intentions are not acted on, not continued or not finished.

a) Not acting:
A common problem is that you just forget what you wanted to do due to all those distractions of our daily life. Even if you do not forget your intentions, it easily happens to miss opportunities were you could have acted on them. This especially happens when those opportunities come up in an irregular manner or are too short to realize (e.g., the vendor packs your goods too fast). In the end, an intention can also fail because you were not prepared accordingly. If one for example bought a breadbox, he or she is still in need for a bag and cannot refuse to take one.

b) Not continuing:
Even if you once succeeded to act on your intention can it still be difficult to keep on behaving in that way. One reason is that you do not keep track of your progress and thus quickly forget your intention. Other reasons may be that negative thoughts or emotions arise towards that behavior (e.g. I do not always want to receive special treatment) or old habits (e.g. I just said yes to a bag automatically) come up again. Lastly, you might just lack self-control since you need a lot of will power throughout the day (so-called ego depletion).

c) Not finishing:
Two problems might come up: you either have the feeling that you almost accomplished your goal and stop putting in effort to follow the goal or you did reach the goal but do not stop to put in effort. The former can lead to the outcome that the goal will never be accomplished. The latter can lead to the outcome that you do not have the time and energy to follow new goals.

Furthermore, there are behaviors that don’t help you to come closer to your goal but you still engage in them as a lot of time, work and resources has already been invested (so-called “sunk-cost fallacy”). For example, one has an extra freezer in the basement even though there is no real use for it. If he or she questions why, thoughts like “But I spent so much money on it” come up.

Since so much can go wrong, it might seem strange that intentions can actually result in behavior. Sheeran and Webb (2016) stress that those obstacles are neither unavoidable nor irresolvable. It quite often happens that you can implement new intentions on the first try. If you do not directly succeed, you can try to find the reason for your failure and make a plan to do so the next time.

How to Overcome the Gap?

In order to overcome the named obstacles, the authors propose so called “if-then plans” or “implementation intentions” as a useful method. Especially for promoting environmental friendly behavior, those implementations intentions are said to be most effective and easy way  (Grimmer & Miles, 2016). One explanation is that they facilitate the preferred behavior to occur automatically in critical situations.

The method works like this:

  1. You start by imaging what you want to achieve as vividly as possible. You can close your eyes and try to envisage exactly how that feels and looks like.
  2. What are the exact steps to achieve that goal? Where do you have to take those steps? (e.g. bakery store, fast food, etc.)
  3. Sometimes things do not work out as planned and certain things hinder us to do what we planned to do. What are the main obstacles to achieve your goal? (e.g. It is inconvenient to ask for me, the product is packed too fast, etc.)
  4. How do you want to act in this situation the next time you encounter it? (e.g. I directly mention that I do not need a bag when I order, thus I do not miss the opportunity.)
  5. Formulate your if-then plan in advance. (e.g. If I order at the bakery, (then) I directly mention that I do not need a bag. If the situation feels uncomfortable, (then) I remain as friendly as possible.)

Another effective method that can be connected to the if-then method is the close observation of your own progress regarding that goal. To make it even more effective you may write down your progress (e.g. in a diary) or you inform your social contacts about your progress (e.g. tell a friend how proud you are that you finally achieved your goal).

If-then plans mostly help you to get started with the preferred behavior and to act accordingly. Keeping track of your progress helps you to continue to act and to realize when that goal is achieved.

Example

Drawing on the previously mentioned example, the wish to reduce waste, we would like to make clear how the techniques could be used successfully.

Let’s propose you decide to lower you waste production. Now, take 5-10 minutes to give it some thought.

First of all, it makes sense to think about the quality of your intention:

  1. Goal setting: Producing less waste might be easy but is highly unspecific. The decision to not produce any waste at all (zero waste) would be very concise but highly unlikely. It is on you to find your best, personal compromise. How about starting with the goal: I do not want to buy fruit and vegetables that are packed in plastic!
  2. Origin: Rethink your goal. Is it personally relevant? Or did someone else ask you to do so? If the goal is not yet personally relevant to you it would make sense to get to know more about that topic or to select another goal. For example, you might consider your car use that has a higher impact on the environment than your plastic waste. Why not start there?! For our example, let’s assume you still decide to produce less plastic waste.
  3. Stability of your intention: Try to understand if you are just acting in the heat of the moment (e.g. you just saw a documentary about the consequences of plastic in our oceans) or if that topic has been occupying you for a longer time period already. If you catch yourself at basing your intention on the heat of the moment, it makes sense to give that topic some more attention first.

Well done, we now have a solid intention. Now, it is of importance to think about the obstacles you might encounter on your way in order to directly act against them. Think about situations in which you will be able to act on your new intention but also about what might hinder you to act and make some preparations. A good opportunity would be a supermarket since they sell lots of fruits and vegetables. Which obstacles could you possibly encounter? Are you missing an alternative to plastic bags? You could, for example, buy a fabric bag instead.

It is best to formulate an if-then plan to ensure that you will act as planned and also continue doing so. An example could be: If I go to the supermarket, (then) I take a fabric bag with me. Or: If I can decide between cheap fruits packed in plastic or more expensive fruit not packed in plastic, (then) I will buy the ones without plastic. Or: If I the only option is vegetables packed in plastic, (then) I will not buy them. Or: If I need fruits or vegetables, (then) I will go to the farmers market (and will not accept the offer of taking a plastic bag). Or, if you really do need the vegetables: If there are only vegetables packed in plastic, (then) I will complain to the manager.

Closely observe your progress of any form. If you are rather structured and barely need the help of friends or family, you could mark the days your plastic waste is full in a calendar. Do you feel like it is more helpful to be supported by others? Tell your friends about your achievements. Don’t forget to keep track and realize when a goal is truly achieved. Under ideal circumstances your if-then plan helps you to make your behavior automatic and you can continue to work on other behavioral patterns.

References

Grimmer, M., & Miles, M. P. (2017). With the best of intentions: a large sample test of the intention‐behaviour gap in pro‐environmental consumer behaviour. International journal of consumer studies41(1), 2-10.

Sheeran, P., & Webb, T. L. (2016). The intention–behavior gap. Social and personality psychology compass10(9), 503-518.

Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological bulletin132(2), 249-268.