The Intent / Behavior Gap

Mar 29, 2016
In his book, The Power of Fifty Bits, Dr. Bob Nease highlights the science of activating good intentions to improve behavior in healthcare and beyond.

Bob Nease

The fundamental idea of The Power of Fifty Bits is that for better or worse our brains are wired for inattention and inertia, not for attention and choice. This point is critical for those of us who are trying to improve behavior, because most of the time we act as though people have an infinite appetite for information and a boundless willingness to make decisions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact of the matter is that we tend to focus our attention on things that are either pressing or pleasurable. Life – what happens, as John Lennon sang, when we are busy making other plans – is loaded with mundane stuff that is neither pressing nor pleasurable. That means we pay little attention to much of what we do. If the status quo isn’t painfully broken, and if an alternative doesn’t tickle our fancy, we are apt to let things ride.

The intent-behavior gap is critical because it radically alters how we approach behavior change. Human resource executives, marketers and others often infer peoples’ underlying intentions from observed behaviors. This leads us to focus on strategies for changing underlying intentions – strategies that focus on persuasion, cajoling and the like.

The intent-behavior gap tells us that when we use these approaches we are very likely barking up the wrong tree. It’s no wonder that we are routinely disappointed by educational campaigns aimed at extolling the virtues of this behavior or that, or by financial incentive schemes to lure people into the desired behavior. These things have less effect than you’d guess because lots of people already believe in the virtue and value of the behaviors that are being promoted. The problem isn’t that peoples’ intentions are pointed in the wrong direction. It’s that people are not acting on the good intentions that they already have.

The intent-behavior gap is at the heart of some extremely powerful solutions for changing behavior. We don’t need to change people’s intentions. We don’t need to persuade them or to attempt to change their minds. What we need is to activate their pre-existing intentions to do the right thing.

Once you understand and believe in this way of looking at the world, a lot changes. You stop focusing on trying to change behavior by changing intentions. Instead, you start focusing on strategies that activate the good intentions that already exist for most people.

Excerpted from The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results by Bob Nease. Copyright © 2016 by Bob Nease. Provided courtesy of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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