Why you don’t follow through with your goals: The intention-behavior gap (Pt.1)

Have you ever wondered why you or someone you know doesn’t act on the goals they’ve talked about?

Many people often speak about the many changes they intend to make and the goals that they want to reach, but ultimately wind up falling short on executing any of the actions necessary. As coaches and fitness professionals, we see this common discrepancy between intention and behavior quite often (and there’s even a name for it).

This recurring theme is known as the intention-behavior gap, and it encompasses the psychological obstacles many dieters/aspiring dieters come to face without even realizing it. This isn’t just exclusive to health and fitness either – dieting, or setting any short- and long-term goal, can be just as much mental as it is physical for individuals looking to work towards change of any kind. What many don’t see, however, is how much of an impact that our thought processes and psychological health really have on the habits and behaviors that follow.

In part 1 of this article, we’ll dive into the psychology of behavior change as well as some background on those key predictors in order to gain an understanding of what we’re often working through without even realizing! In part 2, we’ll dive into the present study’s findings and cover the significance and further application of these tools for use in your own lifestyle changes.

Physical activity follows psychology?

In order to understand the recurring gap between our intentions and behaviors, we need to first establish some background on the stages of change – that is, the phases or markers of behavior change everyone will encounter at one point or another.

There are plenty of models designed to outline behavior change, although the primary phases we can break these down into are known as the motivational phase and the volitional phase. Additionally, each phase is comprised of important psychological predictors/behaviors that ultimately have some sort of impact on the way we choose to act. These predictors (motivational predictors, specifically) will be the central focus of the study to be discussed later.

The motivational phase

The motivational phase can be thought of as the “intention” phase. This is the stage where a person develops the intention to make a change. This intention is driven by self-beliefs, which can be summed up as:

  1. Risk awareness (reflections on one’s general health)
  2. Outcome expectancies (belief in positive or negative outcomes of certain behaviors);

“I want to exercise because it will improve my quality of life.”

  1. Perceived self-efficacy (belief in one’s own capability to make a change or obtain a goal);

“I am confident I can make time to exercise at least 3 times per week.”

Think about a time where you decided to make a big change. Lifestyle changes are a great example! One normally chooses to get a gym membership because it’s known to have a positive impact on their health and fitness level. In contrast, one may not feel confident enough in their ability to hit the gym and know what they’re doing, thus deterring them from taking action in the first place.

The intention-behavior gap lies somewhere between these phases

The volitional phase

The volitional phase can be thought of as the planning, action, and maintenance portion here, or the “behavior” aspect. This phase depends on following through with the intended behavior that’s formed in the motivational phase. The main predictors of this second half include:

  1. Action planning (the “when” and “how” of executing the goal)
  2. Maintenance of self-efficacy
  3. Action control (self-regulating habits)

Action control is the most prominent predictor of this phase. It is essentially summed up through works of self-regulation, such as self-monitoring, awareness of one’s standards, and one’s effort. Being able to self-monitor is essential; without active self-regulation, no one would really care to engage in tasks suited to better themselves (i.e. weekly exercise, good nutritional habits, etc.)

Believing more in your abilities and efforts, or engaging in those self-efficacious behaviors, can be very impactful on being able to later self-monitor your progress as well as set some short- and long-term goals for yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself or what you’re doing, then what’s the point in checking in with yourself?

Onto the study

Now that we have a general idea of how our psychology can play into our choices, it’s time to see these strategies in action. Sniehotta and colleagues (2005) decided to examine the relationship between three psychological predictors and 307 cardiac rehabilitation patients of whom were encouraged to start or uphold habitual exercise. The three predictors the researchers chose to investigate, as discussed prior, were risk awareness, outcome expectancies, and self-efficacy.

It’s thought that in order to bridge this gap, we must start with the drivers of the motivational phase that ultimately predict our initial intentions – starting from the root cause, in a way. With this said, patients with coronary heart disease (CHD) were medically recommended to start up and/or maintain an exercise regimen over the course of 4 months post-discharge from their rehabilitation center.

In addition to this, it’s thought that planning, maintaining self-efficacy, and action control are the more prevalent markers for determining sustained behavior change, so these variables will be included as a means of assessing how the patients follow through once/if their intentions for physical activity are established.

Relevant Time Points

It should be noted that there are 3 distinct time points the researchers wanted to examine throughout the study period: Time 1 which reflects the motivational phase, Time 2 which reflects the volitional phase, and Time 3 which represents the overall assessment of the patients’ physical activity.

In relation to testing each time point, participants were asked to respond to prompts via a scale of 1 (not at all true) to 4 (exactly true). This kind of analysis was used as the primary way to assess the psychological variables in question and determine how “weak” or “strong” they were for each patient while working through their behavior changes. For example, a prompt for assessing self-efficacy (self-belief) would include statements like, “I am confident that I can be physically active at least once per week.”

The researchers here also have not forgotten that past behavior is typically a very reliable predictor of future behavior. Regardless, the hope and main objective of this examination is to determine if strategies like planning, building our self-confidence, and efforts of self-monitoring our own progress will help to mediate the gap between our intentions and physical activity, thus allowing more people to successfully and seamlessly change their habits. In part 2 we’ll dive more into these findings and the implications moving forward!

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