Why the famous value-action gap is smaller than you think

This is a guest post by Professor Gregory R. Maio who researches values and their relevance to behaviour at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University, UK. It is an edited version of a Common Cause Briefing on the value-action gap, published concurrently at www.valuesandframes.org

Despite extensive evidence for the importance of values in motivating pro-environmental concern and behaviours, many working in environmental communications share a conviction that there is an unbridgeable gap between values and behaviour: the value-action gap. These communicators and campaigners point to surveys revealing disparities between what people say is important to them, and how they actually act.  For example, people may say that they wish to protect the environment, but often fail to perform very simple green behaviours, like purchasing low-energy light bulbs or ditching the car for small journeys.

Mind the gap
I used to be encouraged by people’s attention to these apparent discrepancies, as I specialize in studying the psychological processes that help people to bridge values and actions.  Others’ recognition of the gap between values and action reassured me that the issue is important and worth studying.  Somewhere along the way, however, this recognition has turned into a potentially paralysing cultural truism; a negotiable value-action gap has become something that is seen as unbridgeable.

Choice architecture is, of course, important. It is often true that a person’s stated values and attitudes may matter little when their choices are constrained.  It is very difficult to exercise properly if you live in an economically deprived area, have to work long hours in a seated position, and return home to a lack of green space, and poor public recreation facilities.

Recent research
But on several occasions I’ve heard senior figures in marketing or policy state matter-of-factly that attitudes -a closely relevant construct to values – are of little relevance to behaviour.  Yet if they were to read one of the more recent literature reviews they’d see that researchers often find strong correspondence between attitudes and behaviour – it’s not perfect correspondence, but it is much higher than many critics seem to suggest.

Nonetheless, it is true that much early research failed to find this correspondence. Why should this have been the case?

There are at least a dozen important reasons, but one factor stands head and shoulders above the others. Put simply, the past research failed to remember that a key reason for investigating attitudes (and values) is that they are more abstract than the behaviours we try to predict from them.  For example, it’s not interesting for us to ask people how they feel about eating an orange for breakfast a week from now.  It’s more interesting to ask people how they feel about eating fruit, or even about how they feel about healthier eating.  These more abstract topics are more interesting because they potentially predict a broad range of behaviours.  If you know how someone feels about fruit, you can predict a variety of relevant behaviours.

Not one behaviour but many
Crucially, this asset of abstract attitudes (and values) is also their undoing.  My wife loves fruit, but it doesn’t make much sense to ask her whether she likes fruit and then use this attitude to predict whether she will eat an orange at a particular time one morning next week.  She might miss this opportunity for many reasons that have little to do with a failure of the attitude: we might have run out of oranges, for example. As researchers Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen famously pointed out, if you want to see whether abstract opinions matter, you must assess a variety of relevant behaviours and not just one.

There is ample evidence in support of this idea. In one study, residents of a small New England town were given a series of survey questions, probing their general concern about protecting the environment. Three to eight months later, three new individuals contacted the residents and presented them with a range of different actions to help protect the environment.  Participants were given a chance to sign and circulate several petitions (combating off-shore oil drilling, nuclear power, and auto exhaust emissions), participate in a litter pick-up program, and take part in a recycling scheme.

The researchers who conducted this study predicted that the match between people’s environmental concern and their subsequent actions to protect the environment would become higher as the statistical analysis expanded to include more behaviours.  The results strongly supported their hypothesis.  The general measure of environmental concern was a weak predictor of any particular action that participants had the chance to perform, but a much better predictor of sets of behaviours.  For example, environmental concern explained only 1% of the residents’ actual recycling in the fifth week of the program, but was 15 times more effective at predicting recycling behaviour across an eight-week period.  The predictive power more than doubled again when the researchers examined the association between environmental concern and all environmental protection actions combined (including petitioning, recycling, and litter collection).  In the final analysis, environmental concern predicted 36% of environmentally friendly action – a very strong relation according to conventional wisdom for social science research (i.e., not many variables do better than this).

The upshot of all this is that, in working to tackle environmental and social problems, we overlook the importance of values at our peril. It is true that we may be able to overlook values in designing interventions to address specific behaviours in piecemeal fashion. But a thorough-going response to these challenges will require a far more systematic and sustained engagement with the things that we hold to be most important: those things that we value.

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