What We Say Versus What We Do with Kate Laffan

PodcastAugust 16, 2021
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If we’re thinking about having real, lasting change on the environment, and we focus on the role of behaviour change in that, then we need to really focus on those behaviours that if we were to achieve behaviour change, it would deliver real impact.

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Kate Laffan, Marie Curie Fellow at University College Dublin, explains why we struggle to reach the goals we set for ourselves: the intention-behaviour gap. One of the ways this gap manifests is in our environmentally-conscious behaviour. We can work personally and collectively to better align our behaviours to our intentions, and make the world a little better off by doing so. 

This podcast delves deep into changes we can bring about on an individual and organizational level to benefit the environment, including topics such as

  • Key behaviours that we can change, such as meat consumption, air travel, and our housing
  • Reducing intention-behaviour gaps on the organizational level, through strategies that include prosocial incentives, green defaults, and decision aids
  • Creating change on an individual level through implementation intentions, monitoring, and reflection
  • Using COVID-19 induced changes in work environments as opportunities for behavioural change

The conversation continues

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Key Quotes

On Intention-Behaviour Gaps:

Where there are intention-behavior gaps in environmentally significant consumption behaviors people often end up having way more negative impacts on the environment than they themselves ever intended to do. By bringing those two things together [intention and behaviour]…we could have beneficial impacts without ever trying to change people’s minds.”

On Travel:

“Travel varies a lot, depending on your socioeconomic status. If you’re looking at people who have a high socioeconomic status, particularly those people who are traveling a lot by air then that’s the area of their consumption that’s really the most impactful and that should be targeted. If we look at the travel of everyone, it’s actually a minority of people that do take multiple flights a year. For them, it’ll be their everyday travel choices whether they take the car versus commuting by public transport, bike, or by foot.” 

On why Intention-Behaviour Gaps Exist:

“We just need to look at our own behavior to know that we don’t always follow through on our good intentions. Research has told us that there’s certain kinds of intentions that people are more likely to follow through on. If you have promotion goals, like I will go to the gym, as opposed to negative goals, like I won’t binge watch Netflix, for example, you’re more likely to follow through on those positive goals. People who are more present biased tend to fail more often, people who are low in conscientiousness tend to fail more often.”

On leveraging changes brought about by COVID-19:

Habit discontinuity theory would suggest that once we’ve had a disruption in that every day, automatic responses to situations, either at work or at home, there’s an opportunity then to leverage that, to rethink and actually ask the question – ‘does that meeting need to be in person? Do we need to travel for that?’”

On organizations’ influence on employee environmental impact:

“There’s going to be a lot of time that people spend, which is on employers’ watches. Whether that be at home or in the office, a lot of your day and a lot of your environmental impact by virtue of a lot of your day being at work, means that employers have this great opportunity to create a desire for behavior change within their employees, but also to facilitate it.”


Brooke Struck: Hello, everyone. And welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion.

My guest today is Kate Laffan, Behavioral Science Fellow at the OECD, Marie Curie Fellow at the University College Dublin and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about nudging towards sustainable behaviors, different ways to think about the topic, where these nudges are most needed, and how to make them work. Kate, thanks for joining us.

Kate Laffan: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Brooke Struck: Before we really get started, tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you’re up to these days.

Kate Laffan: As you correctly mentioned, I’m a Marie Curie Fellow at University College Dublin. Essentially, what that fellowship involves is just two years of concerted research time to dig deep into a specific challenge. And the challenge that I’m interested in exploring is intention-behavior gaps in environmentally significant consumption behavior. Lots of technical jargon in there, but I’m sure we’ll get into some of the details before long.

Brooke Struck: Yeah, let’s dive right in. That was already a mouthful, environmentally significant consumption behaviors. Another term out there in the ecosystem that I know you’ve used and written about is pro-environmental behaviors. Can you talk us through these terms? What do they mean?

Kate Laffan: Absolutely. As I define it, at least, pro-environmental behavior is actions that we take with a specific intent to have beneficial impacts on the environment. You can think about things like recycling, as well as making a choice to buy an electric car for environmental reasons. And those are really important behaviors that we want to understand and encourage from a behavioral science perspective. But maybe even more important is environmentally significant consumption behavior. And that’s just a really fancy way of saying any behavior that we engage in, that has knock-on impacts on the environment.

From my perspective, it’s really important to understand those behaviors and look to promote pro-environmental action within those behaviors. Because lots of actions that we take, like the food that we consume, may not be based on environmental concerns. But they will have knock-on impacts on the environment. Really trying to understand and shape those behaviors is what I’m looking to do with my current research project.

Brooke Struck: Great. If I can boil it down to a really simple label for each one, pro-environmental behaviors are really intentions focused, whereas environmentally significant consumption behaviors are much more outcomes focused. Is that correct?

Kate Laffan: Yeah, absolutely. And on a good day, I would consider myself a consequentialist for the most part. I’m really interested in that overall impact on the environment at the end of the day, and intention only so far as that helps us to have those good impacts.

Brooke Struck: Right. You’ve talked about the advantage of combining these approaches, as opposed to dogmatically committing ourselves to either one to the exception of the other, what’s the advantage of using them together?

Kate Laffan: I’m specifically interested in intention-behavior gaps as I mentioned before. One of the reasons I’m interested in that specifically is because where there are intention-behavior gaps in environmentally significant consumption behaviors people often end up having way more negative impacts on the environment than they themselves ever intended to do.

And so you’ve already got a group of people there who have these intentions – they may be for environmental reasons, they may be for health reasons, animal welfare reasons, all sorts of reasons – to behave in ways that would benefit the environment or reduce their negative impacts on the environment. But they’re failing to follow through. Bringing those two things together helps us identify a population who, if we were to design context or engage with them in certain ways, could follow through on the things that they intend to do. We could have these beneficial impacts without ever trying to change people’s minds.

Brooke Struck: As you mentioned, you are a consequentialist. So the benefit that you’re looking for there is to tap into those intentions as a lever for behavioral change. Is that correct?

Kate Laffan: Absolutely. But also in terms of thinking about who best to target. We may want to target people from a behavioral science perspective. People who already have intentions to, for example, reduce their meat consumption, we may want to target them differently than people whose minds we’re trying to change and convince them that it may be a good idea to reduce their meat consumption for health reasons or environmental reasons. Not just because it will lead to impact, but it also informs the kinds of interventions that we might want to design.

Brooke Struck: Right. And you mentioned trying to do this without really changing people’s minds or converting them to adopt a different set of values that they don’t already hold.

Kate Laffan: Absolutely. And it’s not that I don’t think that there is a role for behavioral science in thinking about how to communicate on important policy topics like environmental issues, and trying to bring people who aren’t necessarily engaged in those topics along. It’s just that in this project, I’m really interested in those people that are already on board. And it’s about really thinking about what is happening in their day to day lives due to which maybe they’re not acting as well or as pro-environmentally as they might want to.

Brooke Struck: Let’s dive into the topic areas or the behaviors themselves that you’re working on most. So in some of your writing, you’ve highlighted that food, transportation and housing are three areas that have lots and lots of potential. Can you talk us through that? Why are you focused on these areas specifically?

Kate Laffan: Absolutely. That focus is born out of a frustration that I share with some people in the environmental psychology literature that that work typically looked at behaviors that have been easy to research, or have sometimes been considered headline environmental behaviors like recycling, for example. And it’s not that I think people should stop recycling or that it’s not a worthy act, but if we’re thinking about having real, lasting change on the environment, and we focus on the role of behavior change in that, then we need to really focus on those behaviors that if we were to achieve behavior change, it would deliver real impact.

There’s been lots of research that has recently looked at that and asked, “what are those key headline behaviors that we need to be targeting?” As you correctly said, food is really important. In particular, food waste and meat consumption. Travel behavior matters a whole lot, as does the kind of heating you use in your house. So those behaviors are my focus precisely because if we manage to change behavior in those areas, it would deliver real impact.

Brooke Struck: Let’s talk through some of the individual behaviors that fall into those buckets. I’d especially like to give you an opportunity to talk through the impact and intention profile of these things. Thinking about both the outcomes and the intentions that are relevant. So let’s start with food. What are some of the key behavioral dimensions, some of the key decisions around food and their impact on intention profile?

Kate Laffan: Absolutely. The two key ones from an impact perspective are on consumption of animal based proteins. You can break that down. That includes everything from dairy products to meat. You can break meat down into things like poultry and ruminant meat. If you were to rank them all, red meat, ruminant meat, is the most carbon intensive. So if you’re looking at it from a carbon perspective, that’d be the area that you’d focus. But across the spectrum, you’re seeing animal based proteins being more environmentally demanding and disruptive than plant based proteins typically. And so my own work in this project is specifically looking at red meat consumption. I’ll also consider the consumption of dairy products in some further follow up work, but that’s a key area.

In terms of intentions and looking at meat consumption, if you look across Europe, on average, one in every three people has some intention to reduce their meat consumption over the next period. In preparation for this podcast, I looked at Canada as well, and it was equivalent. A 2018 survey looked at intentions to reduce meat over the next six months, and it was a third of people. Not everywhere around the world do people hold the same level of intentions, but certainly, it’s a substantial proportion of the population. And as I said before, it’s not necessarily all about the environment. Lots of people particularly cite health reasons for that.

Brooke Struck: Moving on from food to transportation, what are the big choices, the big decisions that we should be thinking about there?

Kate Laffan: Transportation is key. One of the things that I found really interesting that I read recently is that it varies a lot, depending on your socioeconomic status. If you’re looking at people who have a high socioeconomic status, particularly those people who are traveling a lot by air, so taking a lot of planes, flying around the world on a regular basis, then that’s the area of their consumption that’s really the most impactful and that should be targeted. Really importantly, though, that’s not the majority of the population.

If we look at the travel of everyone, all together, it’s actually a minority of people that do take multiple flights a year, for example. For them, it’ll be their everyday travel choices whether they take the car versus commuting by public transport, bike, by foot. Both matter. It really highlights the point that it depends on the population that you’re interested in, whose behavior you’re interested in changing, to know which behaviors exactly you want to target.

Brooke Struck: And what about the intention profile of those behaviors? What are you seeing in terms of people’s desire to change and desire to have a smaller footprint?

Kate Laffan: Particularly the work around flying has the most telling findings – that there seems to be a difference. There’s this one great paper that’s titled “Green On The Ground, But Not In The Air.” Lots of people who stayed pro-environmental values are still regularly flying. Whether they’re having these intention-behavior gaps, we don’t have the data on that. But certainly, we might have some work to do in terms of fostering intentions to reduce things like air travel, that may not already be there in the same way that they are with meat consumption.

Brooke Struck: I like that title  – “Green On The Ground, But Not In The Air.” It brings up a very nice image of someone driving a very expensive Tesla, and feeling that they’re really doing their environmental part. But at the same time, taking lots of vacations and flying a lot for business, easily surpassing whatever offsets they might have from having switched to an electric car.

Kate Laffan: It’s something that I myself have been guilty of. It’s important that we all reflect too.

Brooke Struck: It’s not them, it’s us. Because we’re all in it.

And finally, moving on to housing. You mentioned earlier that it’s really around heating, and I presume cooling as well is also part of that. Maybe heating and cooling are things that we don’t think about so much as behaviors, but certainly there’s a behavioral angle to them. Tell us a little bit about that.

Kate Laffan: It’s a really good point to have made.  It comes back to something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time as a behavioral scientist, looking at environmental issues. Are you looking to try to change those habitual behaviors that on aggregate have these impacts? Or should you focus your efforts on one offs that, if you were to achieve a change in the moment, would yield benefits long term?

The obvious example in this context would be changing energy providers from a gray to a green tariff. How could behavioral science speak to making people make that switch so that once they’ve switched, it then continues to yield benefits going forward? I would see, particularly in housing, those being very relevant. Obviously, eating and travel are things that we do all the time. And so, how we intervene in those spaces might be very different from how we intervene on those one off behaviors. But it might be just as impactful if we could get the right moment, where people change once and it continues to benefit in the long term.

Brooke Struck: Let’s dive in a little bit into the work that you’ve been doing around the action-intention gap. You’ve marked out the territory of the key behaviors that we really want to be moving the needle on. What are you seeing in terms of people’s action and intention gaps? Where are the most pressing gaps?

Kate Laffan: I can certainly tell you where the most pressing gaps are in our knowledge about why these intention-behaviour gaps come about. There has been a long history of looking at this. This is not a new phenomenon. We just need to look at our own behavior to know that we don’t always follow through on our good intentions. There’s been a huge amount of research on why that is as well. In particular, that research has told us that there are certain kinds of intentions, for example, that people are more likely to follow through on.

If you have promotion goals, or positive goals, like I will go to the gym, as opposed to negative goals, like I won’t binge watch Netflix, for example, you’re more likely to follow through on those positive goals. The more wishy washy it is, the easier it is for us to fail to follow through. We know a bit about what kinds of intentions people manage to follow through on. We also know a fair bit about which people are more likely than others to follow through on their intentions. People who are more present biased tend to fail more often, people who are low in conscientiousness tend to fail more often.

We have a bit of a profile of who and what kinds of intentions. We know far less about what are the situational drivers of intention-behavior gaps. What is it about a given afternoon or a given context that makes people fail to follow through in a way that they won’t on another day, at another time in another place? That’s what my work is trying to do in relation to environmental behaviors. But equally, I think it’s broader than that. It’s going to try to say something to the literature at large as well about the importance of these situational characteristics, and trying to really get a handle on what are those important characteristics that get in our way?

Brooke Struck: Let’s dive into air travel in particular. This is one that obviously you mentioned. It’s, a very specific segment of the population that’s responsible for most of the environmental impact that results from this. With COVID, air travel has been massively disrupted. And a big part of that is the disruption of workplaces and disruption of work patterns. Now that things are easing up, opening up what are we seeing in terms of changes that last in people’s air travel behaviors, especially around business travel?

Kate Laffan: It’s something that I’ve been working on a little bit in the lead up to. We don’t know what the lasting impact of this disruption is going to be, but what I’d like to do is highlight this as an opportunity. Our pre-existing habits of the times we would go to meetings, the meetings we felt like needed to be in person, the kinds of events that we would travel halfway across the world for, all of that’s been disrupted.

Habit discontinuity theory would suggest that once we’ve had a disruption in that every day, automatic responses to situations, either at work or at home, there’s an opportunity then to leverage that to rethink and actually ask the question – “does that meeting need to be in person? Do we need to travel for that? Is that event really going to deliver the benefits for our business that merited what’s going?”

That’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and I’m working on in the hope that I can partner with organizations in order for them to assess and really think about their travel going forward. It’s not something that I think we know the answer to yet but I certainly think there’s a moment of opportunity.

Brooke Struck: What kinds of interventions are we trying and how are we measuring those things in order to get some traction on this?

Kate Laffan: Yeah, it’s a good question. So, to date, I haven’t seen a huge amount of work on thinking about the transition out of COVID and what that means for sustainability. I think there’s a couple of key things. You’ve already correctly identified business travel. There’s also the question of flexible work arrangements and working from home. All of a sudden, lots of employers are facing a situation when their employees are no longer under their roofs anymore. But will still have environmental impacts. Is that off the plate now for the employer? Do they no longer have responsibility? Or should they be thinking about ways to engage with their employees in their home sphere in order to promote pro-environmental behavior while at work at home?

I’ve been thinking about this a bit particularly, because there’s been quite a lot of work on household pro-environmental behavior. Some of that could feed into organizations thinking about how to engage with their employees while they’re working from home. But this is a fast evolving situation. I can only look to the existing literature that spoke to the households to be able to speak to what employers might try. 

The interventions that we’ve got some of the best evidence on in the pro-environmental sphere are, for example, feedback. That’s certainly an important one. It can be really hard for people to understand their absolute levels of consumption, things like how much energy you’re consuming, things like how much water you’re consuming compared to what, that’s really hard for people to get their heads around. Providing feedback of various different kinds can help people really understand if they are high consumers, low consumers, if they could be doing better. Within that, there’s lots of different feedback. There’s obviously just direct feedback about your consumption, but some of the most effective approaches to feedback have been relative to your peers. Providing people information about howtheir consumption relates to their neighbors, relates to their co-workers, for example, that could be an option that’s been proven to be effective.

Other areas that I’ve seen good evidence on is in relation to nonmonetary rewards. You can think about this as ranging from recognizing people for their pro-environmental actions and making that salient, a reputational reward. Pro-social incentives is another one that I’ve seen work very well, whereby you offer to donate to a charity, for example, if the person acts in a certain way, in a pro-environmental way. And what you’re doing there is you’re really doubling down on that intrinsic motivation to engage in that action. You’re saying, “Not only is it good for the planet, but we’ll also make it good pro-socially, if you do engage in this way. We’re not trying to save money, we’re going to use that money to give to charity.” That’s another example.

A really obvious one, it’s very effective, is defaults. Green defaults. If you look across your organization or your household, and you look at all the ways in which people go with the flow of preset options, does that make them act in pro-environmental ways or not? That’s things like if you’re catering for an event, for example, are you making meat options the default? Is that what people get given if they don’t make it specific that they want the vegetarian option? Could you flip that on its head and make sure that everybody gets vegetarian unless they specifically want meat?

What’s nice about that is, you’re not boxing off any options for anybody. Anybody who has a very strong preference will end up getting the meal that they want. But people who are going with the flow will end up having lots more vegetarian meals and lower impact on the environment. Green defaults work in printing, in catering, in energy, thermostat settings. There’s lots of evidence that making those small changes to the environment can have big impacts.

Brooke Struck: You talked earlier about the disruption to work and this moment to reflect and reset our habits. What are some of the defaults that you think are most valuable to set in a new place now, as we return to something like normal work?

Kate Laffan: One thing that I’m exploring is whether there’d be value in having decision aidsaround things like traveling. Asking the questions, “Does this meeting need to be in person? How many people need to travel for this meeting?” A decision aid is one way to go. Or you could have a policy in which the default is that you’re having that meeting online, unless there’s a really good reason not to, and it only involves travel for those people who are directly responsible for the project, unless there’s a really good reason not to.Framing it in that way is almost exactly like a decision aid, except you’re setting the default as being the pro-environmental option. Travel is certainly one that is important. 

Brooke Struck: think that that’s a really valuable and concrete policy suggestion for listeners out there who are trying to think through what is it that they can do to really leverage behavioral insights to improve environmental outcomes, especially in their organizations.A s travel becomes possible again, retaining this default that we’re meeting remotely, unless there is a compelling reason for the meeting to not be remote. In that case, putting together very clear guidelines about when something rises to the level of meriting an in person meeting, and also putting together clear guidelines about who is absolutely essential.

Moving slightly away from the environmental angle for just one second, all of work could be really improved by more critical reflection on who needs to be in a meeting.

Kate Laffan: Or whether there needs to be a meeting or how long it needs to be.

Brooke Struck: How many transatlantic trips could have just been an email the whole time?

Kate Laffan: The meeting time as well is a really important one. Could there be a default that all meetings be 30 minutes? Obviously, there’ll be some instances in which you need to extend those meetings. But if the default is an hour, you’re going to use up that time. There’s lots of ways that behavioral science can speak to making organizations work better beyond just in the environmental sphere.

Brooke Struck: Thinking about the organizational context, and moving away from travel now a little bit, what are some other defaults and decision aids that organizations can think about to improve environmental outcomes?

Kate Laffan: One thing that I really feel strongly about, is that all organizations have different profiles. And there’s been a big push in thinking about sustainable organizations in doing things like a carbon accounting exercise. What that really will do is it’ll look across an organization’s functions, and look to see where their most heavy impacts are. They break them up into different scopes. The first scope is, direct emissions that are coming from an organization’s activities. Scope number two are those missions that come from the heating and energy that an organization uses. And scope three is pretty much everything else. That’ll be things like your work travel, your food and your canteen, stationery, the furniture, everything else that is involved in running an organization.

And doing an exercise like that is important because it doesn’t say for everybody, for every organization, what they need to do is sort out their canteen, or what they need to do to sort out their business travel. Making a statement like that just ignores the nuance that exists across the organizations. What I would really put forward is the importance of doing an exercise like carbon accounting, and then bringing a behavioral lens to it. Saying, “Of those areas of consumption that we have that have these environmental impacts, which are the ones that have the biggest impact? And to what extent does human behavior play a role in them?”

Once you have that analysis carried out, you’ll very quickly begin to identify which are the behaviors for your organization, for your employee population, that have the greatest potential impact. That would be my advice. Equally, depending on the organization, maybe you don’t need to do a whole carbon accounting exercise, but maybe you have a good sense of what are the activities that your company engages in? And what are likely to be the most impactful behaviors amongst those.

Brooke Struck: That’s a really helpful step by step process for someone who cares deeply about this and wants to take meaningful action starting with a carbon accounting exercise. What will emerge from there is the set of priorities like, which are the behaviors that are most in need of being shifted in terms of decreasing environmental impacts. Then thinking about the behavioral angle or the decision science angle behind that what are the pathways that are leading people to make key decisions that are getting them along that pathway that’s high output. I’m wondering whether you can take us one step further and within that behavioral angle, thinking specifically about action-intention gaps?

Kate Laffan: Currently the best literature on how to overcome intention-behavior gaps involves cognitive strategies for the most part. There are really well trodden paths, really well evidenced solutions, like “ifthen” planning. Implementation intentions is another term that’s used for the same thing. It basically ask the question, there is a goal that you’re trying to achieve, you have these intentions, but you recognize that it’s not always easy to follow through on them. Then you engage in a planning exercise that brings you through – if this situation arises that’s linked to that intention, here’s how I’m going to act.

It’s been really well shown in things like voting, for example. You want to go to the polling station, you have all this intention to vote, but studies show that you’re not necessarily going to convert that into action. They ask questions like – When are you going to go vote? How are you going to get there? What time are you going to go? If you have kids, who are going to mind the kids. Are you going to bring them with you? Trying to put all of that planning in and around those intentions makes it more likely that you’ll follow through.

A second strategy that’s effective as well is monitoring. One of the reasons that we fail to follow through on our intentions is we often forget or don’t pay enough attention to them. If it’s a very important intention, particularly in an organizational space, creating some monitoring around whether people are acting as they intend, and getting feedback about that is something that can help intentions to turn into actions.

Those are the cognitive type strategies that have been well evidenced in this space. It’s a bit premature for me to come in and say I’ve got any better answers. I don’t think I have better answers, but maybe complementary ones. Once my project has come to conclusion, hopefully, I’ll have a better sense of what are the really important situational drivers of these intentional behavior gaps. Maybe the strategies won’t be any different, but we’ll know better how to target those strategies. Understanding the role of context, and maybe even interventions embedded in context, will give us further tools to be able to address these gaps.

Brooke Struck: You mentioned that certain people or certain personality types are more prone to overcome the action-intention gap and others less. Can you unpack that a little bit for us?

Kate Laffan: Just that there’s a huge heterogeneity across people. Part of the reason might be that there’s people who are present bias, people who are low in conscientiousness, and people who don’t plan as much. All of these reasons lead to intention-behavior gaps, it seems. 

Brooke Struck: Is there something that we can do to help nudge people towards overcoming some of those predictors that we know are likely to impede them?

Kate Laffan: Important in all of that is our recognition that we can fail to follow through on intentions. Oftentimes, when we are in a cold state, or with a rational head on, we tend to think we;re going to have no problem following through. “I’ve set this diet intention Of course, I’m going to be able to follow through on that. It’s Monday morning, and I feel very strongly about it, I’ll have no problem.”

And then, over time, in different contexts there’s temptations, we might be in a bad mood, for example, we might be presented with a chocolate cake. We’re in those hot states, it’s often very hard to convert that cold intention into action. Maybe recognizing what are those environmental triggers that lead us to fail to follow through, what gets in our way, is one of those tools that can help us. It is borne out by the implementation intention literature, that if then planning that I mentioned, a further development of that is mental contrasting, which requires you to do those plans, but also asks you what could get in your way? And if something’s going to get in your way, how are you going to overcome it?

Maybe for those of us who find it hard to follow through with a given domain, I think we’ll all have domains in which we find it tricky enough, what are those contextual factors or those things that get in our way that we can either avoid or come up with other strategies to be able to resist temptation and carry on with the actions we wanted to?

Brooke Struck: That really seems to fit into this work that you’re doing around situational factors. Thinking not just, who are the people who are going to be prone to fall off the wagon, but in which contexts for which people. And how can we make sure that the intervention that we’re putting together is well adapted to not just the individuals who are going to need to go through the system and deal with this process, but also to really hit people in the right mood, in the right situation, that they’re going to find themselves in when confronted with this?

Kate Laffan: Absolutely. That’s the person and the situation coming together in a way that has long existed in social psychology, but we don’t always think about in behavioral intervention design.

Brooke Struck: At the individual level, what is it that we can do to help ourselves to bring our intentions into reality, to best follow through on our intentions?

Kate Laffan: It depends on what stage you’re at. One of the things that we know about intention-behavior gaps is that they emerge across different stages. It could be that you have this intention, but you don’t really get started. Or you have this intention, you get started, you’re in it, and then somehow, over the course of trying to enact that intention over time, you fall off the wagon.

And then the last way that it can fail is that, if you’re working towards a goal completion, you get pretty far, you get almost the way there, you feel like you’ve done your best in whatever way – in environmental ways, health ways – and you stop short. Depending on where you’re at with your goals, even reflecting on where are you – are you just trying to get started? are you halfway there or you’re almost there – that can help thinking about that. Different strategies will help depending on where you’re at. 

But if you think about just getting started with an intention, for example, lots of behaviors and lots of intentions that we want to map onto behaviors will have things that involve needing to prepare for them. It’s not just the behavior itself, but there’s many things that might need to be in place in order for you to enact that behavior. Take, for example, meat consumption as an intention that you might want to enact. Well, that requires a consumption decision in the moment. But it also depends, if you’re at home, what’s in your fridge, how much time  you have. There’s lots of other factors that play into whether you’re able to make that choice in the moment or not. If you’ve got nothing but meat in your fridge, there’s no way that you’re going to be able to follow through on that intention.

It’s about getting started, then you might want to think about what are the preparatory behaviors that lead you to get to that point where you’re able to make that consumption choice. It will be different if you’re at different stages.

Brooke Struck: What about behavioral activation? Do you think that that’s something that’s, among the interventions that you’ve seen, this idea of start small? If my plan is to go and run 10 kilometers, I don’t start by saying, “Tomorrow morning, I’m going to hop out of bed full of energy, and go and run 10 kilometers.” I say, “Tonight, I’m going to put up my shoes.” And that’s going to be the start. “And tomorrow, I’m going to put on my shoes. Day by day, I’ll just build up to getting there.” That’s an intervention strategy that seems to make the rounds quite a bit. In terms of its intervention power how would you say that ranks relative to some other strategies?

Kate Laffan: It’s definitely an interesting approach, and it hammers home to me the importance of realistic goals, realistic intentions. It’s an interesting one with intention-behavior gaps, because often, if you have aspirational goals, you might try and actually achieve more towards a goal than if you have a very narrow short term goal. In that example that you give, your overarching goal is to get out the door and go for a run. You don’t want to create such small goals, such minute and tiny intentions that you manage to feel like you’ve done something, but you never actually get to the point where you’re achieving the goal that you really want to achieve. There’s a nice sweet spot between having too ambitious and too small goals that aren’t really getting you where you need to be.

Brooke Struck: At the structural or institutional level, what is it that employers can do that you think would give the biggest leg up to employees and to consumers who are looking to do their part?

Kate Laffan: There’s so much that employers can do. Regardless of what the future of work looks like, there’s going to be a lot of time that people spend on employers’ watches. Whether that be at home or in the office, a lot of your environmental impact by virtue of a lot of your day being at work, means that employers have this great opportunity to create a desire for behavior change within their employees, but also to facilitate it.

My current project is more about facilitating rather than creating that initial desire, but I think employees or employers have a role in both – in recognizing the environmental impacts of our actions, communicating with their employees about why they should care about that, how that relates to the vision for the company, for example, but then also facilitating it. How do you make the behaviors that individuals engage in and around work easy to do in pro-environmental ways?

You can think about structural changes around making biking into work easier, subsidizing things like public transport. You might even make it harder for people to do even more polluting activities like driving their car into work. They can make structural changes, but they can also make changes in and around how the company communicates with their employees.

Brooke Struck: Thank you very much. That’s been really helpful. I think there’s a lot in there to digest, and I hope that we can speak again soon.

Kate Laffan: I would love that. Thanks so much.

Brooke Struck: Thanks.

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About the Guest

Kate Laffan

Kate Laffan

Dr. Kate Laffan is a Marie-Curie fellow at the University College of Dublin, Behavioral Science Fellow at the OECD, and Visiting Fellow in the Psychological and Behavioural Science Department (PBS) of London School of Economics. She also hosts the PBS Theory to Practice seminar series which focuses on the application of behavioural science to pressing policy challenges. Her current research focuses on intention-behavior gaps in environmentally significant consumer behaviour, with the goal of bringing about policy-related changes that can benefit society and the environment at large.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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