Best of intentions
and helping to enact them
One of the questions we are often asked is why there is a ‘say-do’ gap between what people say and how they behave. The received wisdom for this can often be that people answering questions are either simply not willing to say what they really think (due to social desirability) or they are not able to say (as they cannot account for the own behaviour).
On the first issue, survey designers have long understood that there can be a social desirability issue and there is plenty of guidance on how to mitigate this (as much as possible) in survey design text books. It’s a fair challenge but an overstated one.
But what about the second issue, that people simply cannot account for their own behaviour? This is frequently linked to the idea that we have some kind of non-conscious system in operation that we cannot access, but which is the real mover and shaker behind our behaviour.
Surely before we start to theorise about this gap in terms of these sorts of non-conscious systems, we might first look look at simpler explanations, and more specifically, how we are interpreting this gap.
There is a range of good reasons why there can be a difference between what people are motivated to do and then what they actually enact (e.g. getting vaccinated for winter flu):
We can have competing motivations (I want to get vaccinated to protect myself and others / I want to put in hours at work to make sure my job is safe)
When we look at something in advance which seems like a good idea we are not always aware of the detail until we get closer (e.g. the vaccination centre is miles away / there are side effects / it requires multiple trips etc)
We often ask about motivations in a very global, conceptual way (e.g. is getting vaccinated a good idea? / Do you intend to get vaccinated?) but enacting the specific behaviour is a different thing (no available appointments / my partner does not want me to / can’t get time off work etc)
So there are a range of perfectly legitimate reasons for the difference between what people say and what they do. In which case, rather than appealing to a deficit on the part of the person answering the question, or resorting to explanations of a non-conscious homunculus, it is surely useful to think more carefully why there might be a distinction between intentions and behaviours.
Of course some of our behaviour can less reflective and more automatic but it seems quite a leap to use this as an explanation of first resort here. We might want to simply understand that it can be hard to enact our intentions and offer ways to help people to do so.
The task of the researcher working alongside the marketer or policy maker is often to find ways to do just this - to help people behave in a way that they intend and hope. People are often motivated to change but, as we all well know to well from our own lives, making it happen is not always easy. This is the challenge, as well as opportunity, for governments, brands and all of us alike.