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The Intention–Behavior Gap

date Nov 8, 2018
reading time 7 mins
category paper


How big is the intention–behavior gap? When are intentions more or less likely to get translated into action? What kinds of problems prevent people from realizing their intentions? And what strategies show promise in closing the intention–behavior gap and helping people do the things that they intend to do?

Goal intentions vs Behavioral intentions

Goal intentions are people’s self-instructions to achieve desired outcomes, and behavioral intentions are self-instructions to perform particular actions directed towards attaining these outcomes.

Why forming intentions and understanding them are important

Although most behavior is habitual or involves responses that are triggered automatically by situational cues, forming intentions can be crucial for securing long-term goals. The concept of intention has thus proved invaluable for researchers concerned with behavior change, and interventions designed to promote public health, energy conservation, and educational and organizational outcomes generally rely on frameworks that construe intentions as a key determinant of actions.

Key ingredients for likely attained goals

In general, evidence suggests that goals that are framed in terms of promotion (vs. prevention), autonomy (vs. control), and learning or mastery (vs. performance) are more likely to be attained. Similarly, concrete or specific goals engender better performance than general or ‘do your best’ goals.

Increasing the likelihood of enacting

Intentions based more on feelings about performing the behavior (affective attitudes) than on thoughts about the likely consequences of acting (cognitive attitudes) are also associated with improved prediction of behavior. Findings also indicate that greater feelings of moral obligation and anticipated regret about failing to act increase the likelihood that intentions are enacted.

Conflicts and justifications for distractions and procrastications

Finally, many intentions present a conflict between what people want to do and what they feel they should do. Such conflicts can give rise to justifications for indulgence that can undermine the realization of intentions. Taken together with research on self-licensing, it seems that there are times when people willingly undermine their own intentions by justifying so doing to themselves.

Identity related goals are better, but…

The extent to which intentions are relevant to the persons’ identity can also influence the likelihood that they are achieved. For example, people for whom exercising was an important part of their self-concept (“exerciser schematics”) better translated their intentions to exercise into action compared to participants who did not think of themselves as ‘an exerciser’. On the other hand, when behavioral intentions serve an identity goal and other people take notice of the person’s intention, intention realization is compromised – because the person feels they possess the identity and no longer needs to act on their intention.

Intention–behavior consistency

Properties of intentions also influence intention–behavior consistency. Studies of properties of intentions measure not only the direction and intensity of an intention (e.g., “I intend to finish this paper before I die!”) but also other features such as accessibility (indexed by response latencies to questions about intention), certainty (e.g., “I am certain that my intention will not change!”), and temporal stability (e.g., the within-participants correlation between measures of intention taken at two time-points)

Intension stability » certainty or accessibility

Several lines of research indicate that intention stability is a better indicator of the strength of the respective intention than accessibility or certainty. First, intention stability is a more powerful moderator of the intention–behavior relation than the other indicators.

How is intention stability helped?

Second, temporal stability is associated with improved processing of goal-relevant information and increased resistance to attacks on intention. Finally, evidence indicates that intention stability mediates the influence of other moderators of the intention–behavior relationship such as attitudinal versus normative control, anticipated regret, self-schemas, experience with the behavior, and intention certainty.

Stable intentions

Factors that form the basis of intention appear to influence rates of intention realization precisely because they lead to stable intentions, and stable intentions have powerful effects, even moderating the consistency between measures of intentions and behavior taken 6 years apart

Obstacles to achieving the goals

Self-regulatory problems may be encountered during different phases of goal pursuit and include problems (a) getting started, (b) keeping ongoing goal pursuit on track, and (c) bringing goal pursuit to a successful close

Monitoring progress

Having successfully initiated goal pursuit, the next self-regulatory problem that people face is how to keep goal pursuit on track. One reason that goal pursuit can be derailed is because people fail to monitor their progress. Evidence suggests that keeping track of progress (e.g.,using a diary) increases the likelihood that intentions are achieved, perhaps because monitoring progress serves to identify discrepancies between current and desired states and maintains attention on the focal goal

Ostrich Problem

This motivated avoidance of progress monitoring is termed “The Ostrich Problem” and appears to be rooted in people’s desire to maintain favorable views of themselves and their standing with respect to the goal. Goal pursuit can also be derailed by competing goals, bad habits, and disruptive thoughts and feelings. Perhaps the most common competing goals involve distractions (activities that consume time or effort needed to realize the focal intention) and temptations.

Low willpower

Low willpower can also derail goal pursuit. Several studies have shown that participants with low levels of executive function (assessed by Go/No-Go or Stroop task performance) are less successful at translating their intentions into action.

Failing to complete

The third key problem that people may encounter when striving to achieve their intentions is failing to bring goal pursuit to a successful close. This embraces three issues: withdrawing effort before completing the goal, continuing to engage in a futile course of action, and becoming over-extended. Making good progress towards one’s goal can lead to coasting, and people may withdraw effort from goal striving prematurely especially if they expect to be successful. Disengaging from goals becomes necessary when it has become clear that the desired outcome is unattainable or the costs of continued striving outweigh the benefits. The difficulty lies in recognizing that these circumstances have arisen, overcoming self-image or accountability concerns, and effectively calling a halt.

If-Then plans

One of the most widely researched and best-validated tools for improving the translation of intentions into action is forming if-then plans or implementation intentions. If-then planning involves identifying relevant opportunities and obstacles. Having identified good opportunities to act and key obstacles to manage, it is then necessary to (a) select an effective way to respond to each opportunity and obstacle and (b) link the opportunity/obstacle and response using the following, if-then, format: If (opportunity/obstacle) arises, then I will (respond in this way)!

How does if-then plans help?

If-then plans help people to act on their intentions because the mental representation of opportunities or obstacles becomes highly accessible – people are thus able to identify the moment to act when they encounter it. Moreover, strong associations are forged between the opportunity/obstacle and the specified response, meaning that people are in a good position to seize that moment and respond as they had spelled out in advance.

Top-down vs bottom-up

Whereas action control by intentions operates in a ‘top-down’, deliberative manner, neurophysiological studies indicate that if-then plans operate in ‘bottom-up’, cue-driven fashion

Too much monitoring does not lead to change in behaviour

… a large-sized increase in the frequency of progress monitoring led to a small-to-medium-sized change in behavior. Interventions had larger effects when the focus of monitoring (performance of goal-directed behavior or outcomes) matched the desired outcome (a change in behavior or a change in outcomes) and when progress was physically recorded (e.g., in a diary) or made public (e.g., group weighing sessions).

Narrowing the Gap

The quality of the intention matters, however, and the nature of the focal goal, the basis of intention, and properties of intention each influence rates of intention realization.