Fly less, use less plastic or cycle to work every day. Many of us have good intentions when it comes to our green behavior. But then this happens – you’re on the go, won’t get home for another few hours and you are starting to get hungry. You quickly go to the coffee place around the corner. Before you know it, you are walking out of the café with a plastic water bottle, a sandwich in a bag and a coffee-to-go with a plastic lid.
This is something that happens to all of us – we form good intentions, yet oftentimes fall off track during goal pursuit. Of course, this does not only concern our environmental behavior. If you are anything like me, you’ve probably once set yourself a “New Year, New Me” kind of intention. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I guess that you did not always stick to those intentions. For example, did you ever sign up for a gym and ended up not going? Well, you would not be the only one, in the U.S. a staggering 63% of gym memberships go completely unused! So much about those fitness intentions so many of us have….
Not sticking with our intentions is such a common behavior, that psychologists have even given this phenomenon a name: the intention-behavior gap.
The intention-behavior gap is basically what it says in the name – there is a gap between intentions and behaviors. In other words, simply changing your intentions will not guarantee that you will actually change your behavior in order to pursue a goal.
Why don't we act on our good intentions?
There are two factors that influence whether we will act on our intentions: the “qualities of intention” and so-called “self-regulatory challenges”. Let’s break it down to make it less complicated.
The qualities of your intention - How “good” is your intention?
The “qualities of intention” are influenced by three factors: goal dimensions, the basis of the intention and the properties of the intention. Please go ahead and think of a goal or intention that you have and ask yourself the following questions:
- Goal dimensions – Is your goal concrete and easy to reach? Are you being realistic (instead of over-optimistic)?
- Basis of intention – Are you trying to please others or do you really wish to change the behavior yourself? Do you have experience with the behavior? Are you undermining your good intentions by justifying so (“self-licensing”)?
- Properties of intentions (temporal stability) – Are you certain that your intentions will not change? Have you had this intention for a while?
How did you answer? According to research, the “ideal” intention (as in, one that is likely to be acted upon) is concrete, easy and realistic. Furthermore, it focuses on promoting a certain behavior (e.g. eat more vegetables) instead of preventing a behavior (e.g. eat less meat). Additionally, the motivation to change the behavior should come from within yourself (as opposed to acting upon peer pressure). Last, the more experience you have with the behavior and the longer you have had this intention, the more likely it is that you will reach your goal.
The self-regulatory challenges - Can you stick to your intentions?
The second factor that influences whether you translate your intentions into action, are the so-called “self-regulatory challenges”. Basically, this refers to four problems you might encounter when trying to act on your intentions, namely:
- Failing to get started
- Getting derailed
- Not calling a halt
- Overextending oneself
Failing to get started
Most of us lead busy lives. Therefore, it may simply happen that you either forget to act or miss opportunities to act. This is especially likely when opportunities to act are infrequent or brief. Additionally, you may fail to act on your intentions because you did not prepare for it.
Example: You want to skip the plastic bags at the supermarket. However, when you do your grocery shopping, you realize that you forgot to bring your reusable bags, so you end up using the store’s plastic bags.
Even if you have successfully started to work towards your goals, it can be difficult to keep this behavior on track. You might get distracted or face temptations you just can’t resist.
Example: You intend to eat more vegetarian foods, but when you get to a BBQ with your friends, the sausages just smell too good for you to be able to resist.
Not calling a halt
Sometimes, you might not admit to yourself that a certain behavior is not leading you towards your goal. For example, it is common to continue pursuing a certain strategy if you already invested time, money and work into it (“sunk-cost fallacy”)
Example: You own a capsule coffee machine. Despite knowing that this causes unnecessary plastic waste, you continue using it as it was “so expensive”.
The final problem that might undermine your goal pursuit is overextending yourself while you pursue multiple goals. You can think of this as running out of willpower. If you already had to exert lots of self-control to pursue certain goals during the day, you might simply lack the energy or willpower to do so later in the day (also called ego-depletion).
Example: You cycled to work, shopped plastic free at the local market and spent some time in the evening to look at green energy providers. It gets so late that you are too tired to cook so you end up getting takeaway food packaged in single use plastic.
Where do we go from here?
Given all the things that can go wrong, you might be surprised that we even manage to reach some of our goals. Well, I hope you don’t feel discouraged, because there is hope!
Recognizing during which part of the process you tend to get off track is the first step in identifying the actions you need to take in order to pursue your goals with success! Furthermore, there are little “tools” that you can use to help you in the process – you can find out more about these in this blog post.
Further reading & resources
- Sheeran, P., & Webb, T. L. (2016). The intention–behavior gap. Social and personality psychology compass, 10(9), 503-518. [Link]