The Attitude-Behavior Gap

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One upon a time, I sent this message to as many friends as I could justifiably annoy on Facebook:

Thanks for participating! Feel free to reply here with your answers. It helps me if you will number your answers to correspond to the questions. The first two questions help me to determine demographic information.

Please answer the last three questions as honestly as possible. No names will be attached to the survey answers. Questions 3-5 should be answered with either “true” or “false” based on your personal beliefs and routines. There are no wrong answers.

  • What is your age?
  • What is your gender?
  • The following statement is true or false:

“I want to eat a balanced and healthy diet.”

  • The following statement is true or false:

I believe that eating 3 or more servings of vegetables a day is an important part of having a balanced and healthy diet.”

  • The following statement is true or false:

“I do eat 3 or more servings of vegetables every day.”

I keep a pretty short list of Facebook friends, but of the 22 I messaged, 20 amazing people messaged back. What I found was fascinating.

Of the 20 answers, the answers were as follows:

  • 3 (15%) of the respondents were aged 18 or younger, 13 (65%) were between the ages of 19 and 35, and 4 (20%) were aged 36 or older.
  • 9 (45%) of the respondents were male, and 11 (55%) were female.
  • 100% of respondents said they wanted to eat a healthy and balanced diet.
  • 100% of respondents said they believed that eating 3 or more servings of vegetables a day is an important part of having a balanced and healthy diet.
  • Only 8 of 20 (40%) of respondents said they do eat 3 or more servings of vegetables a day.

There is clearly a disconnect here.

Behaviorists call this the attitude-behavior gap, or the value-action gap. Simply put, the gap is the difference between what we believe, and how we behave. The gap is the reason why all 20 of my friends admitted to wanting to eat healthy, and knowing how to eat healthy, but only a fraction of them actually act upon that knowledge.

Painful honesty time: it’s also the reason that many of us know that certain retail chains refuse to pay their workers and farmers a living wage, but we support those chains anyway. It’s the reason that we know full well what certains foods do to our bodies, but we consume them anyway. It’s the reason we know that Christians outnumber orphans in America 7 to 1, but the system is still overrun with homeless kids.

We are the gap. And every time we turn our backs on what we know to be true, the chasm widens.

Change predicates that we address our excuses. And oh, there are so many. For those of you who are practically screaming at this article “Mandy, puh-leease teach me more about the attitude-behavior gap! It’s just so fascinating and my life will never be complete without this knowledge!” I know, settle down. Here’s a crash course in the top four excuses, complete with helpful analogies (you’re welcome):

Ignorance

This excuse is couched in laziness. We depend on others’ opinions rather than determining our own. If we are told that this cause isn’t worthy, or that exercise regime doesn’t work, we believe it without real examination. We can overcome this excuse by asking good questions and searching for facts. In this situation, the respectable reason for not eating healthier is that we don’t know how. The real reason is that we don’t want to put in the work to find out.

The excuse: I can’t eat healthier, because no one in the nutritional field can agree on what is “healthy.”

The flaw: I am depending on rumor and vague information, but haven’t taken the time to go looking for facts myself.

Fear of Change

This excuse is built around a comfortableness with our current situation that supersedes our desire for betterment. We view the value of improvement as not worth the effort required. Even though, on a theoretical level, we understand that the change would good for us, we allow ourselves to be discouraged by the work involved. The respectable reason for this excuse is that the work is not worth the result. The real reason is that we don’t want to move from our comfort zone.

The excuse: I don’t eat healthier because I’m afraid of what I’d have to give up.

The flaw: I am thinking primarily of what I would lose, rather than focusing on the good I could gain.

Options

This excuse goes hand-in-hand with ignorance, and is based around assumptions. We assume we can’t do something, although we’ve never tried it. We assume that there are no alternatives, because we haven’t seen any. The respectable reason for this excuse is a lack of options, but the real reason is a lack of motivation.

The excuse: I don’t eat healthier because it costs too much money.

The flaw: I am accepting the assumption that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food, but I haven’t looked for inexpensive alternatives.

Empowerment

This excuse is founded on the belief that our actions will have no impact on the big picture. We don’t vote because we believe one opinion won’t make a difference. We don’t boycott because we believe no one is listening. The respectable reason for this is that our change would not do good, but the real reason is that we don’t believe that the change is important for its own sake.

The excuse: I don’t eat healthier because I don’t believe it will really improve my well being.

The flaw: Not believing that my actions are powerful is not a strong enough reason not to try.

The solution: If I decide to do what is good for my body anyway, I will probably be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Notice how each excuse had a respectable reason and a real one? That’s the key to recognizing and debunking these excuses. Oh yeah, I’m talking about honesty. Certainly not my strong suit when it comes to life-altering overhaul.

Unfortunately, no forward motion will start itself. It’s a law of nature. If you want something to move, you have to apply pressure to it, create inertia, and momentum, and other science-y things. But first you have to make two determinations: 1) that the thing in question is not already moving, and 2) that it should.

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