How do we explain the good resolutions that fade away with the month of January, the record French audience for the World Cup in Qatar despite the announcements of boycott, or the twinge of sadness we feel when we pass a homeless person without giving them a coin? 

In clear, how can we explain the gap between our convictions and our actions? And above all, how can we become aware of it in order to adopt a behavior aligned with our values? 

It is a beautiful harmony when saying and doing go together.


How can we explain our behavior?

Behavioral science research

The behavioral sciences study the activities and interactions between living organisms. Since the end of the 20th century, studies have attempted to understand the mechanisms involved in our individual decisions and actions. The results are particularly interesting for the design of public policies or more efficient development programs, especially in the fields of consumption, health or ecology.

Several theories have emerged to try to explain what makes us act the way we do. Some factors may be internal or external, conscious or unconscious, one-time or constant. They can be both reasons to act and obstacles to change. 

Intention and the theory of planned behavior 

The first theory comes from the social-cognitive model. It is the theory of planned behavior (TPB), which complements the theory of reasoned action (TRA). Developed by Icek Ajzen in 1985, the TCP maintains that intention is an indicator of the behavior that an individual will adopt. This intention is influenced by three criteria:

  • His/her attitude towards the behavior: is it right/wrong to do so?
  • The existence of a subjective social norm (existing or perceived by the individual): how does society perceive this behavior? what will people think if I engage in this behavior?
  • The individual’s perceived control over the behavior: am I capable of doing this?

Thus, when all three criteria are met, behavior should be aligned. Nevertheless, even though several studies have validated this founding theory, it happens that our actual behavior is out of line with our intention, our values and/or our attitudes. This is called the “value-action gap” or “intention-behavior gap”. Intention alone does not necessarily explain all our actions.

The motivation

You may hear the voice in your head arguing with your laziness and trying to motivate you to go to the gym, file your taxes or, this time, quit smoking. But are all motivations the same? The humanistic model postulates that there are different kinds of motivations and that not all of them are to be preferred in order to act in a congruent way. 

Intrinsic motivation comes from the pleasant feeling a person gets when he or she performs the given activity or behaves in a certain way. The feeling of pride in having learned or accomplished something or being challenged is a motivating reward. For example, going to work because you like what you do and feel useful. 

Extrinsic motivation is linked to the external effects resulting from the behavior: the carrot (the expected reward) or the stick (the punishment that we try to avoid). It can come from (ideally) a goal to be achieved, an expected gain, or (unfortunately) social pressure or feelings of fear, shame, or guilt. A person may perform a task to get a raise or agree to go to a restaurant with his or her team only because of the fear of looking bad if they refuse. 

Studies have shown that intrinsic motivation generates more consistency and better and more constant performance. It is favored by three criteria: autonomy in the activity, competence (and the fact of feeling useful) and the attachment one has to the people or feelings related to them.

The environment

Other theories include the socio-ecological model, which suggests that all the elements that make up our environment are likely to affect our behavior. Several levels are to be taken into account: intra-personal (age, gender, cognitive processes), inter-personal (influence of relatives and peers), organizational (associations, school), community (social context) and political (from local to national).

Habits and automatisms

The dual model, on the other hand, points to the importance of the automatisms created, which are sometimes hard to change, especially with regard to daily gestures. This is probably why we always buy the same brands, no matter how harmful they are, or why we take our car for short trips because we have always done it that way. 

The necessary efforts

Change can involve sacrifice. Sometimes the immediate gratification of inconsistent action takes precedence over the long-term project. For example, the appeal of meat takes precedence over our animal sensitivity or ecological awareness. The project can also be too ambitious and therefore seem unattainable and discourage us. Like going on a drastic diet from one day to the next, only to stop after a week.

The difficulty to feel concerned 

You also hear people say, “I can’t do anything about global warming on my own. It’s public policy and big businesses that really have the upper hand.” Feeling powerless or ineffective in a fight curbs our desire to act because we don’t want to make unnecessary efforts. The same goes for the famous “why don’t I just take my car and go next door while this person or that person takes their private jet?” No one wants to act in vain while others keep the same lifestyle. And that can be discouraging!

Act in such a way that the maximum of your action can be established as a universal law of nature.


Finally, sometimes we do not feel directly concerned by the consequences of our actions (or those of society). This is particularly the case when the effects are distant, in space or in time, such as diseases that we will only develop years later as a result of a poor lifestyle. 

All these theories (the list is not exhaustive) are not exclusive to each other. Some specialists mention, for example, the role of anticipated regrets or personal determination.

Discover our street interview on interdependence and altruism

Cognitive dissonance: where does that knot in the chest come from?

The reasons we have for doing what we do are diverse. And sometimes they lead us to actions that are not consistent with our values. This creates cognitive dissonance, an internal tension theorized by Leon Festinger in 1957. This dissonance is felt when the individual is aware of the inconsistency between his cognitions and his actions. Faced with cognitive dissonance, we tend to justify our actions, to create an artificial coherence with our values, but we can also choose to change our behaviors, as we explain in the second part of this article.

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