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What is the Intention-Behaviour Gap and how can you avoid it

What is the Intention-Behaviour Gap and how can you avoid it

Why do people so often fall short of doing what they intend to do? It's called the Intention-Behaviour Gap, and that's what we will explore in this blog.

“This is my year! No more junk food, no more Friday night drinks, and I’m going to exercise four days a week… minimum!”

... Sound familiar?

Alas, months pass, and your plans on following through with your resolutions have fallen short. New Years rolls around yet again, and you think to yourself this is it, THIS is my year!

Trust us when we say it’s not just you. Most people have experienced a similar cycle of setting an intention and falling short of following through with it. 

Whether it’s a New Years resolution, telling yourself you’d study for your next test ahead of time, or getting all your chores done before the weekend is over. We call this the intention-behaviour gap.

So, what is the intention-behaviour gap? It occurs when one’s actions do not align with their previous intentions - when people don’t do what they want to do, basically. For example, when one intends to exercise for 30-minutes after work but ends up lounging on the couch watching the latest episode of Married at First Sight.

So, what causes the gap?

The short answer: many things.

To highlight the three categories of factors that contribute to influencing behaviour, we use the COM-B Model for the purpose of this article:

  • Capability: an individual’s psychological and/or physical ability to participate in a behaviour.
  • Opportunity: external factors that make the behaviour possible.
  • Motivation: the conscious and unconscious processes that inspire behaviour.
The COM-B Model for behaviour change

COM-B therefore suggests that the absence of one, or more, of these components could be the cause of an intention-behaviour gap.

Here's an example where capability is the issue.

Paul intends to reduce how much waste he contributes to landfill after learning about how waste contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions. 

He has the motivation to do it; and because their local council has a recycling program, he has the opportunity to do it

However, because he doesn’t know what type of waste goes into which recycling bin, they conclude that they do not have the capability to do it.

How has BWA addressed the gap?

Understanding and influencing individual’s internal capabilities

Our researcher, Dr Brea Kunstler is also a practising physiotherapist who helps patients on their injury recovery journey.

She highlights a common problem faced by physiotherapists: patients coming out of surgery who intend to do rehabilitation exercises to help with their recovery, but fail to do so.

To address this, she recommends that health practitioners properly understand and address their patient’s behavioural capabilities. For example, by “checking in with the nurse to see when the patient had last taken their pain medication, and ensuring the person has taken the sufficient pain relief before conducting any sort of rehabilitation exercise.” It might seem simple, but it is often overlooked.

Using Implementation Planning to plan ahead

Our researcher Jenni Downes has found a range of barriers that impact people’s intention to reduce waste in Australia. For instance, she highlights physical barriers such as time (the individual does not have time to conduct the behaviour), space (the individual does not have the space to conduct the behaviour), or competing priorities (the individual has other priorities that restrict their ability to conduct the behaviour).

Jenni argues that a good method to overcome these barriers is to plan for how to address each in advance. This is a technique known as Implementation planning, which essentially involves planning to conduct a behaviour that an individual intends to do whilst also taking into consideration all the barriers they could be faced with, can be one way to do this. 

So... what have we learned about the intention-behaviour gap?

One thing’s for sure: it happens a lot, and it’s not an easy gap to close.

Human behaviour is complex and involves many variables. As indicated in the COM-B Model, we can break down the causes for the gap into three categories relating to the individual’s capabilities, motivations, and opportunities. 

Our experiences at BehaviourWorks Australia show that there are ways such as preparation and planning ahead that can help to close the gap.

However, all of this is really just scratching the surface of understanding and closing the gap, and there is still much to be learned.

So, for everyone still trying to eat healthier this year, maybe try planning ahead by meal-prepping your favourite foods ahead of time!

For interest or enquiries about our research services or training, please contact us.

Authored by Dr Peter Slattery and Malaika Jaovisidha

[updated 01/03/2023]

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