Positive attitude v/s Actual behaviour – The value action gap

Dr. Purva Tavri (Researcher and Chartered Waste Manager) explores the ‘value action gap’ and what it means for the environmental sector.

Currently, whether it is an individual or an organisation, most of us have positive attitudes towards environmental values. However, quite often when it comes to acting upon these attitudes; that is, transforming these into ACTUAL behaviour social, economic, operational issues tend to become barriers. This is what is called the ‘value action gap’. The value action gap is recognised as a common barrier among the studies that used behaviour change frameworks such as – the theory of planned behaviour (TPB) (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980) and the Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002) pro-environmental behaviour framework.

In the field of environmental psychology and social sciences, there are various influential authors who have produced behaviour change frameworks that many of us continue to apply in empirical studies. For instance, Porter and Lawler (1968) model on organisational behaviour, which indicates motivation, ability, and the salient environment as major influences on performance and behaviour. Motivation is also emphasised by Drucker (1999, 2001) as a key factor that leaders in organisations need for facilitating behaviour change, which he indicated is associated with the willingness.

In rather relatively recent pro-environmental behaviour studies along with motivation, ability, and salient environment – social, cultural, logistical, financial, and other factors are also identified as a key to facilitating behaviour change. For instance, Barr (2007) examined three waste management behaviours, waste reduction, re-use, and recycling. He found that, unlike reduction and re-use, recycling was characterised by the residents as highly normative behaviour, with recycling services easily accessible to residents being an enabling factor. A study by Bekin et al. (2007) identify peer pressure and enforcement as other ways of attaining a goal. Their study of waste reduction notes that in 2007, Friends of the Earth (FoE) were lobbying the government to give councils the power to charge householders for increased waste production or reward them for being pro-active recyclers. They concluded that waste could be reduced by making recycling a civic duty.

Talking about waste management, Ajzen and Fishbein’s (1980) TPB is cited by Cox et al. (2010) in their study of household waste prevention as a widely used framework for influencing household behaviour towards reduced consumption and waste production. TPB seeks to modify behaviour on the basis of three categories: attitudes towards the behaviour, perception of social norms, and perception of behavioural control (Cordano and Frieze, 2000; Fielding et al., 2008; Groot and Steg, 2007; Vining and Ebreo, 2002). However, TPB is indicated by the author himself as insufficient for representing the complexity of attitude–behaviour relationships. As intention towards the desired behaviour constitutes an attitude change. However, various practical constraints prevent attitude change from transforming into actual behaviour change (Ajzen, 1991).

Value action gap

As part of my research, I reviewed 75 pieces of pro-environmental behaviour literature, consisting of 40 empirical studies and 35 theoretical studies, whereby, communication, engagement/action, behavioural maintenance are identified as factors that can facilitate behaviour change. Nonetheless, for attaining a sustained behaviour change or changing the behaviour into a habit or norm needs surpassing the barrier of value action gap (Tavri, 2019).

In their study of the influence of marketing on consumer purchase decisions, Pickett-Baker and Ozaki (2008) argue that the value action gap is a phenomenon that tends to develop due to misperceptions. According to them, the value action gap is the difference between beliefs and actual behaviours. They illustrate this with the example that ‘an individual concerned about the environment does not necessarily behave in a green way in general, or in their purchasing’ (2008, p.282).

Kaiser et al. (2010) and Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002) in their studies argues that misperceptions and value action gap occurs because in theories we tend to assume that humans are rational beings, who make systematic use of information provided, whereas, in reality, this may not be the case. For instance, Berkowitz (2004) explains that because of the lack of clear communication and action on that communication, ‘pluralistic ignorance’ develops. Pluralistic ignorance occurs ‘when a majority of individuals falsely assumes that most of their peers behave or think differently… [about something]…when in fact their attitudes or behaviours are similar’ (2004, p.7). Thaler and Sunstein (2009) further agree that pluralistic ignorance is a persistent problem in many social practices that must be considered during the behaviour change investigation.

Complex messaging is one of the reasons identified by Prendergrast et al. (2008) as a common cause of pluralistic ignorance. Nonetheless, Prentice and Miller’s (1996) study shows that strong messaging (facts and knowledge) has the power to avoid pluralistic ignorance. Prendergrast et al. (2008) likewise argue that a powerful and simple message considers individual variability and therefore acts as an internal drive to prevent the manifestation of a value action gap within a group.

To avoid the occurrence of value action gap it is crucial to consider ways of avoiding misperceptions and pluralistic ignorance at the very outset – when creating communication, engagement, and maintenance tools for behaviour change. This is well put by Berkowitz (2004) that ‘it is extremely important to determine the most salient and relevant influences on the target group before designing an intervention to make sure that the norms being created are influential’ (2004, p.21).


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  • Tavri, P. (2019) ‘A successvie pro-environmental framework.’ Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Waste and Resource Management, 172 (1), pp.14-27.
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