The Value-Action Gap: Why People Don’t Act in Accordance with Their Beliefs

The Value-Action Gap

 

The value-action gap is a phenomenon where people act in a way that’s inconsistent with their values. Accordingly, the value-action gap occurs when people act in a way that either fails to support their values, or in a way that contradicts those values entirely.

For example, many people display a value-action gap when it comes to environmental issues, when they say that they care about those issues, while simultaneously being unwilling to take actions that will help solve them.

The value-action gap is a prevalent phenomenon, that has critical implications in various domains, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the value-action gap, and see what you can do to account for it and reduce it in relevant situations.

 

Examples of value-action gaps

One example of the value-action gap is that, when it comes to people’s health, there is often a big difference between how much people say that they care about being healthy, and how willing they are to take actions that will improve their health.

Another example of the value-action gap appears in the context of consumer decisions, since 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 disadvantages, such as a slightly higher price.

In addition, many examples of the value-action gap appear 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.

 

Causes of the value-action gap

The value-action gap can occur due to different combinations of causes under different circumstances. Common causes of the value-action gap include the following:

  • Failure to generate concrete intentions for acting in accordance with values.
  • Failure to recognize opportunities to act in accordance with values.
  • Motivational complexities, for example in cases where people have competing values that support different types of actions.
  • Social dilemmas, such as feeling that it’s unfair to support a certain value when many other people don’t.
  • Lack of trust that acting in accordance with values will be effective, for example when it comes to not believing that a certain product will actually be recycled.
  • Counter-incentives outweighing values, for example when it comes to more expensive prices for products that are manufactured in an environmentally responsible way.
  • Lack of relevant options or increased difficulty of choosing those options, as in the case of having no healthy foods available in the cafeteria.
  • External forces that push people to act against their values, such as marketing.

For example, when it comes to counter-incentives, a common reason why people fail to translate their values into actions is that doing so can entail an attribute tradeoff, where acting in accordance with their values involves an unwanted side-effect, such as a higher price or a lower-quality product. An example of this is 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.

Note that, the underlying reason why these issues can lead to the value-action gap is that values are not translated directly into actions. Specifically, people generally need to go through all the following stages in order to get to a point where they actually undertake a certain action:

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

In addition, other steps are sometimes necessary in order to get people to take action, such as recognizing that there is an opportunity for them to do so.

Accordingly, simply being informed of an issue, or having relevant values or even intentions, can be insufficient when it comes to getting people to take action, especially when various issues interfere with the process of translating these things into actions.

Overall, people display value-action gaps because translating values into actions generally requires a number of steps, and various issues can interfere with this process, including competing values, counter-incentives, lack of relevant options, and external forces.

Note: in some cases, value-action gaps that are found in research may also be attributed to other causes. For example, one such cause is a potential bias in the responses toward socially desirable values, which means that people’s values are different than what they claim they are, for instance because they claim to care about the environment more than they actually care.

 

Related concepts

The value-action gap is sometimes referred to by similar names, such as the attitude-action gap, the attitude-behavior gap, and the belief-behavior gap, although distinctions are sometimes drawn between these terms.

In addition, there are also related types of gaps. This includes, for example, the intention-action gap (also referred to as the intention-behavior gap), as well as the knowledge-action gap, which appears at individual, institutional, and societal levels, and the associated knowledge-attitude-practice gap.

These gaps share various similarities and differences with the value-action gap, both when it comes to their causes, and when it comes to their outcomes.

In addition, the value-action gap can co-occur with other gaps. For example, it can occur together with the intention-action gap, in cases where people form relevant intentions based on their values, but then fail to take action according to those values and intentions.

Finally, note that the concept of the value-action gap is associated with having low attitude-behavior consistency, as people who have low attitude-behavior consistency are less likely to act in accordance with their values.

 

Accounting for the value-action gap

Accounting for the value action gap can be beneficial in various situations, such as when you want to understand or predict people’s actions. For example, if you’re planning on raising money for a charitable cause from people who have expressed support for this cause in the past, accounting for the value-action gap can help you estimate what proportion of people will be willing to donate.

The key to accounting for the value-action gap is to keep in mind that people don’t always act in accordance with their values, so even if someone has expressed support for a certain value, that doesn’t mean that they will take action that supports that value too.

You can also estimate the magnitude of a future value-action gap by looking at relevant factors, such as:

  • How strongly people feel about the given value.
  • What process people need to go through in order to translate their values into actions.
  • Whether there are potential things that could cause a value-action gap (e.g., competing values or counter-incentives).

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

 

How to reduce the value-action gap

The main way to reduce the value-action gap that you or other people are experiencing is to identify what’s causing it in the first place, and then address those causes. For example, if people display a value-action gap because they fail to generate concrete intentions for acting in accordance with values, you can address this issue by encouraging them to generate concrete intentions where necessary.

In addition, there are several general things that you can do to reduce people’s value-action gaps in various situations:

  • Remind people of their values. This increases the likelihood that people will act in a way that’s consistent with their values, especially if you do it when they have an opportunity to act. For example, you can remind people that they care about the environment right before they purchase a car, to increase the likelihood that they will buy a car that’s environmentally friendly.
  • Make people care more about their values. Caring more about a certain value increases the likelihood that people will act in accordance with it. To make people care more about their values, you can do things such as remind them why this value is important from a moral perspective or how it aligns with their perception of themself.
  • Encourage people to take action, and help them do so directly. For example, you can help people develop concrete plans regarding how they will act in a way that supports their values, and then encourage them to follow through on those plans.
  • Make it easier for people to act in a way that’s 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’s inconsistent with their values. The harder it is to act in a way that’s inconsistent with a certain value, the more likely people are to act in accordance with that value. For example, if acting in a way that’s inconsistent with a certain value leads to negative social reactions, that makes it less likely that people will act that way.

Overall, to reduce value-actions gaps you should identify and address their causes, while doing things such as reminding people of their values, making people care more about their values, encouraging and helping people to take action, making it easier to act in a way that’s consistent with relevant values, and making it harder to act in a way that’s inconsistent with relevant values.

Note: solutions for reducing the value-action gaps often involvenudge, which is a simple aspect of people’s decision-making environment that alters their behavior in a predictable way, without forbidding any options or significantly changing their incentives. In this case, the goal of nudges is to increase the likelihood that people will take action that is consistent with their values.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The value-action gap is a phenomenon where people act in a way that’s inconsistent with their values.
  • Examples of 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 that were manufactured in unethical working conditions, even though they care about the workers.
  • People display value-action gaps because translating values into actions generally requires a number of steps, and various issues can interfere with this process, including competing values, counter-incentives, lack of relevant options, and external forces.
  • Accounting for the value action gap can be beneficial when it comes to understanding and predicting people’s actions, and you can estimate future gaps by looking at past ones, and by considering factors such as how strongly people feel about a given value, what process they will have to go through in order to translate the value into action, and whether there are potential things that could cause a value-action gap in this situation.
  • To reduce value-actions gaps you should identify and address their causes, while doing things such as reminding people of their values, making people care more about their values, encouraging and helping people to take action, making it easier to act in a way that’s consistent with relevant values, and making it harder to act in a way that’s inconsistent with relevant values.