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 contradicts or fails to support their values.
For example, many people display a value-action gap when it comes to environmental issues, because even though they care about those issues, they are unwilling to take action that will help address them.
The value-action gap is a prevalent phenomenon, which 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 reduce it where necessary.
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 drawbacks, 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 people 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 various causes, such as:
- 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 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 if you put it in the recycling bin.
- Counter-incentives that outweigh the associated values, for example when a product that is manufactured in a more ethical way is more expensive than competing products (this specific example is a case of an attribute tradeoff, whereby the attribute of the product being more ethical is balanced by it being more expensive).
- Lack of relevant options or increased difficulty of choosing those options, for example in the case of having no environmentally friendly version of a necessary product available for purchase.
- External forces that prompt people to act against their values, such as marketing that encourages people to buy a certain type of unhealthy food.
The underlying reason why these issues can lead to the value-action gap is that people must actively translate their values into actions, and these issues may interfere with the process of doing so, either by delaying it or by disrupting it entirely. Specifically, people generally need to go through all the following stages in order to get to a point where they 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 relevant values.
- Next, people must translate these values into intentions to take action.
- Finally, people must translate these intentions into real actions.
In addition, people sometimes need to go through other steps before they take action, such as recognizing that there is an opportunity for them to act.
Accordingly, given the active role that people must play in order to translate their knowledge, values, and intentions into actions, people may sometimes fail to take action simply because of the active effort that’s necessary, even if there isn’t a single specific issue preventing them from doing so.
Overall, people display value-action gaps because translating values into actions generally requires actively going through a number of steps, and various issues can interfere with this process, including competing values, counter-incentives, and lack of relevant options.
Note: in some cases, value-action gaps that are found in research may also be attributed to other causes. For example, people may respond to questions about their values in a biased way, in an attempt to show that they hold socially desirable values, which means that people’s true values may be different than what they claim they are, and better aligned with their actions than their fake, socially desirable values are.
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. Accordingly, the value-action gap can also be conceptualized as involving low attitude-behavior consistency, as people who have low attitude-behavior consistency are less likely to act in accordance with their values.
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, similarly to 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.
Furthermore, the value-action gap can co-occur with some of these 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.
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, including your own. For example, if you plan to raise 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 in reality.
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.
Furthermore, you 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).
When doing this, it can be beneficial to 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 the issue. For example, if people display a value-action gap because they fail to recognize opportunities to act in accordance with their values, you can address this issue by explicitly pointing out those opportunities to them.
In addition, there are various general things that you can do to reduce people’s value-action gaps, such as:
- 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 remind them how their value aligns with their perception of themself.
- Encourage people to take action, and help them do so directly. For example, you can help people develop a concrete plan for acting in a way that supports their values, and then encourage them to follow through on that plan.
- 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, you can make it more likely that people will act in a way that’s consistent with a certain value by giving them a negative social reaction whenever they consider acting in a way that’s inconsistent with that value.
Overall, to reduce value-actions gaps, you should identify and address their causes, and potentially also use general techniques, 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 involve nudges, which are simple aspects of people’s decision-making environment that alters their behavior in a predictable way, without forbidding any options or significantly changing their incentives.
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 avoiding 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 actively going through a number of steps, and various issues can interfere with this process, including competing values, counter-incentives, and lack of relevant options.
- Accounting for the value-action gap can be beneficial when it comes to understanding and predicting people’s actions, including your own, and you can estimate future gaps by looking at past ones, and by considering factors such as what process people will have to go through in order to translate a specific value into action.
- To reduce value-actions gaps, you should identify and address their causes, and potentially also use general techniques, 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.