Clean drinking water
While the intention-action gap is frustrating in our personal lives, it can be fatal when it comes to sanitation and health, especially in developing countries. A case from 2010 showed how closing the intention-action gap can improve health and save lives, through increasing access to clean water using a behavior-led design.23 One of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to ensure clean drinking water in developing communities is to treat water with chlorine. However, adoption of chlorine treatments tends to be poor, as people either forget to do it or are unsure how to use it – an intention-action gap.
In response, behavioral scientist Michael Kremer led a team from Innovations for Poverty Action, tasked with designing a solution for a rural community in Kenya.23 The team needed to help communities embed chlorine use into their daily routines, and the chlorine needed to be easy to use. In other words, they needed to bridge the intention-action gap by increasing self-efficacy and making chlorine use an automatic process.
To make chlorine use an automatic and easy process, the team installed a dispenser at the local community water source. This way, the new purification behavior was linked to the already established routine of collecting water, a sort of “piggybacking” strategy. The team designed the dispenser bright blue so that it was salient. The location of the dispenser also made it effective because the required wait time for chlorine-treated water was partially automatically completed during people’s walk home.
An initial randomized controlled trial found that 50-61% of households with access to the dispensers adopted the chlorine treatment, compared to only 6-14% of the control group.23 Importantly, this effect was sustained over the two years from installation of the dispensers. The organization Evidence Actions has since scaled up this solution, providing access to clean water for 4 million people across Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda. Impressively, usage rates are still comparable, at over 50%.
Sustainable food consumption
An interest in sustainable production and consumption has increased at all levels of the agricultural chain. Farmers and consumers have learned that sustainable products can have positive benefits for economic profit, social wellbeing, and environmental sustainability.24 Ultimately, sustainable consumption is based on a decision-making process that considers the consumer’s social responsibility, as well as their individual needs and wants.
Everyday consumption practices are driven by convenience, habit, money value, and are likely resistant to change. A 2006 study by Vermeir and Verbeke found that although [young] people claim to be ethical consumers, actual ethical initiatives such as sustainable organic food and fair-trade products often have market shares of less than 1%. In other words, they identified an intention-action gap.
Sampling 456 consumers aged 19 to 22 years old, the researchers manipulated factors that influence consumer choice by showing advertisements for sustainable dairy.24 They found two factors that had a significantly positive impact on attitudes about buying sustainable products: the first was being involved with sustainability and the second was perceived consumer effectiveness. Both these factors were strongly correlated with intentions to buy sustainable dairy products.
Regarding involvement with sustainability, consumers are more influenced by their values than by the consequences of their actions. To this end, involvement or perceived personal relevance is a specific type of value that can motivate actions. Involvement is activated when a product, promotional message, or service is perceived as important for meeting one’s needs and values. To manipulate involvement, the researchers presented participants with an article describing the benefits of consuming sustainable products, such as increased safety, health outcomes, and improved taste.
Notably, perceived consumer effectiveness is related to perceived control in the TPB: it refers to the extent consumers believe their efforts or actions can contribute to solving the problem.
The availability of sustainable products influences how much control a consumer feels they have over their purchasing choices. In order to motivate behavioral changes, consumers must believe they are able to purchase sustainability, and that their actions will positively impact something that they value, such as the environment or fighting against social inequities. To manipulate perceived consumer effectiveness, participants were presented with informational messages about the availability of sustainable dairy products and how consumers could contribute to a better world.
The researchers suggested that low perceived availability of sustainable products might explain intention-action gaps. On the other hand, social norms tested through peer pressure were found to explain buying intentions; since it is the norm to buy traditional products, people tend to adhere through peer pressure. The results of the study showed that raising involvement, perceived consumer effectiveness, social perceptions, and perceived availability around sustainable food items can thus bridge the gap between intention and action for sustainable consumption. These findings have important implications for policy design and marketing strategies, as sustainability-focused organizations continue to address these factors in their interventions.