The Value-Action Gap: Why People Fail to Follow Through on Commitments

The Value-Action Gap

 

The value-action gap is a psychological phenomenon where people act in a manner that is inconsistent with their values.

For example, a prevalent value-action gap exists between the way people feel about environmental issues and the way they act when given a chance to address those issues. Specifically, while most people say that they care about environmental issues, many of them are generally unwilling to take actions that will solve those issues, especially when the necessary actions will inconvenience them even slightly.

Since the value-action gap is a widespread phenomenon, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about value-action gaps, see examples of them in real life, understand the psychology behind them, and learn what you can do in order to reduce the likelihood that you or other people will have them.

 

What is the value-action gap

The value-action gap is a psychological phenomenon where people act in a manner that is inconsistent with their personal values. This means that the value-action gap occurs when people act in a way that fails to support their values, or in a way that contradicts those values entirely.

As such, the value-action gap is indicative of a low attitude-behavior consistency in a person. This psychological construct represents the correlation between an individual’s attitudes and their tendency to act in a way which mirrors those attitudes, and the lower this correlation is, the less likely a person is to act in a manner which reflects their beliefs.

Note that the value-action gap is sometimes referred to by similar names, such as the attitude-action gap, the attitude-behavior gap, the intention-behavior gap, and the belief-behavior gap. Furthermore, there are also related concepts, such as the knowledge-action gap and the knowledge-attitude-practice gap (KAP-gap), which refer to the additional gap between what people know and the attitudes that they form.

 

Examples of value-action gaps

Examples of value-action gaps appear in many areas of life, but they are especially common in the environmental context, where people often fail to take actions that reflect their values. For example:

  • There is a gap between how much people say they care about recycling, and how much they recycle in practice.
  • There is a gap between how many people say they favor organic food, and how many purchase organic food in practice.
  • There is a gap between how much people say they care about carbon emissions, and how much they are willing to change their habits to reduce their carbon emissions in practice.

In addition, another domain where value-action gaps frequently appear is that of personal health, where there is often a significant gap between how much people say that they care about being healthy, and how much they are willing to take actions that will improve their health.

Finally, another domain where people frequently display value-action gaps is the domain of consumer decisions. For example, many people say that they care about the working conditions of the workers who produced the products that they are buying, but few people actually base their decision regarding which product to buy on these factors, especially if doing so carries any disadvantages, such as a slightly higher price.

 

Why people have value-action gaps

In the past, people’s failure to act in a way that could benefit them or other members of society was believed to occur as a result of an information deficit, which means that people’s inaction was assumed to happen because they were unaware of the necessity and importance of taking action.

Accordingly, pasts model assumed that simply informing people about relevant topics will lead them to form concrete attitudes and intentions with regards to those topics, which in turn will lead them to take the necessary actions.

However, as we saw earlier, modern research on the topic shows that even though it’s important to inform people of the importance of certain issues, this alone is generally not enough to get them to take action. This is because even when people are well-informed about certain topics, there is often still a gap between what they believe they should do and what they do in practice.

Specifically, people must go through all the following stages in order to get to a point where they actually undertake positive action:

  • First, people must acquire the necessary knowledge on a certain topic.
  • Then, people must process this knowledge in a manner which causes them to form appropriate values.
  • Next, people must translate these values into an intention to take action.
  • Finally, people must translate these intentions into real actions.

Under this model, it is clear that simply informing people isn’t enough to get them to take action.  Rather, even though informing people is crucial when it comes to getting them to form values, these values must then be translated into intentions, which must, in turn, be translated into actions.

A common reason why people fail to translate their intentions into actions is that doing so often entails accepting an attribute tradeoff, which means that the course of action that is in line with their values involves an unwanted side-effect, such as a higher price or a lower-quality product.

The bigger the tradeoff that you must accept in order to act in accordance with your values, the less likely you are to be willing to accept that tradeoff, and the more likely to are to act in a manner that is inconsistent with your beliefs.

For example, people might know that switching to a new type of energy is better, but the inconveniences involved with doing so often deter them from following up on their beliefs. Another example of this is the fact that people often say that they support products that are more ethically-responsible, as in the case of fair-trade coffee, but many are unwilling to accept the increased cost that is associated with such products.

Overall, people display value-action gaps because people’s values rarely translate directly into actions. Rather, people must actively translate these values into intentions, and then translate those intentions into actions. A failure at any stage of the process, which can occur due to the inconvenience of acting in accordance with one’s values, will cause a person to display a value-action gap.

 

How to account for the value-action gap

As we saw so far, the value-action gap plays a role in people’s thinking in a variety of situations, whenever people act in a manner that is inconsistent with their beliefs. This phenomenon is especially prevalent when acting in accordance with one’s beliefs incurs some cost, in the form of factors such as inconvenience or money.

Accordingly, if you want to account for the value-action gap when assessing the likelihood that people will take action, you must remember that it’s not enough to look at what people say that they care about. Rather, you have to look at what people, including yourself, generally do in practice.

Furthermore, when assessing the likelihood that people will take a certain action, you should generally assume that not everyone who says that they care about something or that they will undertake an action will follow through on their commitment in reality. Though it’s difficult to predict the portion of people who will actually act in accordance with their values, there are two main factors that you should consider:

  • The stronger people feel about the topic, the more likely they are to take action.
  • The more difficult it is for people to take action, the less likely they are to do it.

In addition, you can examine how people acted in similar situations in the past, which will give you insights regarding how they will likely act in the future.

 

How to reduce the value-action gap

Being able to reduce the value-action gap can be valuable both when it comes to your own behavior, as well as when it comes to other people’s behavior. There are several things that you can do in order to accomplish this:

  • Make people care more about the relevant value. Caring more about a certain value increases the likelihood that people will act in accordance with it. For example, to get people to care more about their values, you can emphasize why this value is important from a moral perspective, or why it aligns with their self-expectations.
  • Remind people of their values at opportune moments. Getting people to remember a certain value right before they have an opportunity to act on it increases the likelihood that they will do so. For example, you can remind people that they are trying to be more environmentally conscious, right before they purchase a car.
  • Make it easier for people to act in a way that is consistent with their values. The easier it is for people to take action that reflects their values, the more likely they are to do so. For example, you can make it more likely that you will avoid drinking soda when you’re in the office, by taking a bottle of water with you to work.
  • Make it harder for people to act in a way that is inconsistent with their values. The bigger the penalty for acting in a way that is inconsistent with a certain value, the more likely people are to act in accordance with that value. For example, a common type of penalty involves a negative social perception by others, which occurs when people act in a way that is inconsistent with the prevailing behavior of their peers.

In many cases, the technique that you will use in order to reduce the value-action gap will involve a nudge, which is a modification that you can make to people’s decision-making environment in order to alter their behavior in a predictable way. In this case, the goal of the nudge is to increase the likelihood that people will take action that is consistent with their values.

For example, to increase the likelihood that people who are interested in being healthy will actually buy healthy food, you can make that food more prominent by placing fruit at eye level at the cafeteria while placing cookies on a lower shelf.

Furthermore, you can use similar nudges in order to alter your own behavior. For example, you can increase the likelihood that you will buy healthy food, by setting up a daily reminder on your phone, which shows up each day right as you head to lunch.

Overall, there are various things you can do in order to reduce the value-action gaps that both you as well as other people experience.

In general, your chosen strategies can target people’s values, by increasing people’s commitment to a certain value or by reminding them of it at an opportune moment, or they can target people’s actions, by making value-driven actions easier and value-contradicting actions more costly.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The value-action gap is a psychological phenomenon which occurs when people act in a way that is inconsistent with their personal values.
  • Examples of common value-action gaps include people eating unhealthy food even though they care about their health, people ignoring green energy sources even though they care about the environment, and people buying products which were manufactured in unethical working conditions, even though they say they care about the workers.
  • Value-action gaps occur because people fail to translate their values into intentions or their intentions into actions, usually because doing so entails some sort of cost, in the form of increased prices or increased inconvenience.
  • You can account for the value-action gap by realizing that people, including you, are much less likely to act in a way that supports their values than they think, and by realizing that the less people care about the topic and the harder it is for them to take action, the less likely they are to actually do something.
  • To reduce the likelihood of a value-action gap, you can either increase people’s commitment to their values, remind them of their values at critical moments, make value-driven actions easier, or make value-contradicting actions more costly, all of which you can accomplish by using nudges, which are minor modifications to people’s decision-making environment.