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Intention-Action Gap (Behavioural Economics)

AS, A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 4 Apr 2018

In simple terms, the intention-action gap refers to the difference between what people say they would like / plan to do and what they actually do.

Often we plan to take more exercise (especially after the festive period) but fail to do so. Or we plan an improved diet but don't follow through with our intentions. People often express a desire or intention to save more but in the event choose not to do it. 

Sometimes the intention-action gap is the result of a behavioural bias favouring immediate gratification - especially when choosing some foods over others. The gap might also result from setting over-ambitious targets. 

Concrete goals clearly set out in a plan and perhaps reinforced by some kind of pre-commitment device might produce better results. So too can the process of chunking i.e. breaking down one goal into a series of smaller, intermediate steps.

In a experiment carried out by the UK Behavioural Insights team, having a cohort of unemployed jobseekers make a specific plan and commit to it in writing in front of a Job Centre advisor resulted in the number of people collecting unemployment decreasing by 15-20%.

The intention-action gap might also be addressed through changes in the choice architecture facing consumers and also by making people more aware of the real consequences of their actions on others and the wider community.

This research from Ideas42 (published in March 2017) looks at the intention-inaction gap with a particular focus on nudging people towards making more sustainable consumption decisions.

"Behavioural science tells us that people often do have good intentions to choose the right option; instead, there may be something in their surroundings, or a feature of the choice itself, that is preventing these intentions from becoming real."

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