Saying vs. Doing: Understanding the Intention-Behaviour Gap

By The Hotspex Behavioural Science Team

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By The Hotspex Behavioural Science Team

Kaylee Boulton, Erin Shanahan, Chaim Kuhnreich and Maria Ayala


Typically, it is thought that an individual’s intentions (or what they say) are the strongest predictor of their behavior (or what they do), but is that always the case? Take a moment to think about your last New Year’s resolutions. Did you actually follow through with them? If not, don’t worry, you are not alone.

An overwhelming amount of research suggests that individuals’ intentions are not always the best predictor of their behavior. For example, one study found that although 77% of people followed through with their New Year’s resolutions for the first week of the year, only 40% reported sticking with them 6 months later. Further, only 19% of the individuals reported actually achieving their New Year’s goals, once new resolutions had been set. This discrepancy between individuals’ intended behavior and their actual behavior is called the Intention-Behavior Gap or Say-Do Gap.

A review conducted by Sheeran (2002) indicated that although intentions can predict a wide range of behaviors, including customer decisions, there is a weaker relationship between intentions and behaviors than we often think. Across the studies reviewed, Sheeran categorized the participants into four groups based on their intended and actual behavior. Both the group who said they would act but didn’t and the group who said they wouldn’t act but did could be responsible for the Say-Do Gap as their intentions and behaviors are mismatched.

Sheeran discovered that it was those who intended to act but did not that were primarily responsible. In an example of exercise, whereas 54% of people who intended to exercise did not follow through with their intention, only 3% of individuals exercised despite not intending to do so. Further, variables like values and attitudes, which are often thought to strongly predict intentions and behavior could not explain this gap, suggesting that other factors contribute to behavior in a meaningful way. Begging the questions, what are these other factors?

A large body of research suggests that the gap exists because of situational factors which prevent intentions from being translated into action. For example, at the purchase moment, customers are exposed to several contextual factors which were not present at the time of intention formation (e.g., product placement in store, presence of other products, cost, time constraints, affect, etc.) that may cue associations which change perceptions of the product or brand they were intending to purchase, ultimately causing a rift between customers’ intentions and behaviors.

Implications of the Say-Do Gap for Consumer Behavior

It is important that brands understand the Say-Do Gap to accurately predict customer behavior. If key business decisions are based purely on consumers’ intentions, there is a good chance they may miss the mark. This means it is important to move beyond just measuring intentions if we want to be able to accurately predict consumers behavior.

Hotspex: Identifying, Understanding, and Bridging the Gap

By identifying and understanding the existence of a Say-Do Gap, brand builders can make informed decisions that cue key brand associations, drive behavior, and, ultimately, bridge this gap. At Hotspex, we help brand builders understand how customers perceive their brand, packages, communications, and assets at both a conscious and nonconscious level. We go beyond intentions and use our proprietary tools to assess behavior in a simulated shopping environment which closely mimics real-world contexts. There are several examples where Hotspex has helped brands identify, understand, and bridge the Say-Do Gap:

1. Identify: Due to increasing value placed on sustainable products by consumers, a leading laundry detergent made a switch to a more sustainable package for its product. Our virtual shopping exercise revealed that the purchase rates were lower for this new package. Despite cuing sustainability, we uncovered that the new packaging was less strongly related to certain key brand associations, which could have led to the reduced sales.

2. Understand: A battery brand wanted to optimize its in-store display to build stronger functional associations with the brand. All four versions of the display elicited identical explicit perceptions from the customers but there was a noticeable lift in the shopping behavior for one of the displays. We helped the brand understand the why behind the lift in shopping behavior by measuring the nonconscious brand perceptions that differed between displays.

3. Bridge: A popular over-the-counter medical brand released new packaging that was not performing well in the market. We tested this packaging in a simulated shopping environment and replicated this pattern of declining purchase behavior. In a later phase, we tested an optimized pack design that maximized brand sales in a simulated shopping environment and in-market.


In summary, the Say-Do Gap is the difference between what people say and what they actually do. Identifying the existence of this gap and understanding when it occurs is important because it allows us to make informed decisions and bridge this gap – all of which Hotspex can help you with.

Sources: Carrington, M. J., Neville, B. A., & Whitwell, G. J. (2010). Why ethical consumers don’t walk their talk: Towards a framework for understanding the gap between the ethical purchase intentions and actual buying behavior of ethically minded consumers. Journal of business ethics, 97(1), 139-158.

Johnstone, M. L., & Tan, L. P. (2015). Exploring the gap between consumers’ green rhetoric and purchasing behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 132(2), 311-328.

Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. Journal of substance abuse, 1(2), 127-134.

Sheeran, P. (2002). Intention—behavior relations: a conceptual and empirical review. European review of social psychology, 12(1), 1-36.

Sheeran, P., & Webb, T. L. (2016). The intention–behavior gap. Social and personality psychology compass, 10(9), 503-518.