How Behavior Changes: The Theory Of Planned Behavior
If you think about your own behavior – for example, cooking a veg*n meal or going to the gym – it is often preceded by an intention. Simply put, an intention is an aim or a plan to take a certain course of action. In this case, the intention or plan to cook a veg*n meal.
Now you may be thinking, doesn’t the saying go something like this? “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And you are right, folklore has caught onto the modest relationship between intentions and behavior. This is because intentions, especially “good” intentions are often vague. However, intentions still explain 20-30% of the variability in behavior, so they are an important consideration with regard to changing behavior.
If we take intentions one step further, there is a specific type of intention – implementation intentions – that are particularly helpful when it comes to changing behavior because of their specificity. In short, implementation intentions are “if-then” plans that help promote behavior change. In particular, they help us overcome obstacles. Let’s think back to our intention to cook a veg*n meal. Imagine you get to the grocery store and they are out of a key ingredient you need. An implementation intention for this scenario—which you form before ever leaving the house—may be as follows:
If I get to the grocery store and they have sold out of meatless chick’n strips for my stir fry…
then I will get tofu or tempeh instead.
As we can see from the above example, “if-then” plans facilitate behavior because they are specific and they reduce mental effort, especially when facing barriers to a desired behavior.
What Predicts Intentions?
Three main factors contribute to behavioral intentions: attitudes, perceived behavioral control, and subjective norms. Importantly for animal advocates, strategies can be used to influence these three factors to help to increase intentions and, in turn, behavior.
Let’s break each of these factors down.
Attitudes: “Do I Want To Do That?”
Attitudes are evaluations about whether something is positive or negative. We develop attitudes about people, groups, institutions, consumer products, social issues, and yes, even behaviors. Attitudes make people more likely to behave in certain ways. Many animal advocacy campaigns have focused on changing attitudes toward behaviors like eating meat in order to reduce the consumption of animal products. How can you apply this knowledge in your advocacy?
What Can You Do? Inform Others
Providing new information can change peoples’ attitudes toward a given behavior. For example, informing people about factory farm conditions might make their attitudes toward animal products more negative. However, as many animal advocates know, informational campaigns don’t work on people who are too defensive or avoid the information—which unfortunately describes a lot of people.
Further, our recent report about new veg*ns’ motivations and influences revealed that learning about farmed animal sentience was helpful in maintaining a veg*n diet only in combination with other influences (e.g., learning about health benefits).
Because of the nuanced relationship between attitudes and intentions, it is important to work on shifting perceived behavioral control and subjective norms as well, as described below.
Perceived Behavioral Control: “Do I Have The Ability To Do That?”
Feelings about how easy or difficult it will be to perform a behavior are also important predictors of intentions. This is not to say that people do not engage in behaviors that are difficult to start or maintain, but believing that a behavior is under your control or that you have the ability to do it encourages you to put in more effort, be persistent, and create strategies.
For example, an independent young adult may have higher perceived control over going veg*n compared to a young adult who is dependent on a guardian, even if they both desire to change their behavior. This is because the independent young adult does not rely on a guardian to provide food for them and may therefore feel more capable of going veg*n as the food in their home is under their control.
What Can You Do? Be An Example To People Close To You
Showing the success that comes from a given behavior can increase other people’s perceived behavioral control. For example, showing your social media followers how healthy you have become due to a veg*n diet may help motivate them to do the same.
It also helps to show how simple a behavior is to engage in. For instance, sharing simple veg*n recipes or tips and tricks for dining with family and friends who eat meat can increase people’s confidence in their ability to make the change.
Subjective Norms – “Do Other People Want Me To Do That?”
Norms refer to social pressure to behave a certain way. That pressure can occur either because others are behaving that way or because you think others believe you should behave that way. This means understanding our target audience’s beliefs about what others do or think with regard to a given behavior.
What Can You Do? Promote The Use Of “If-Then” Goals
Setting mental reminders for yourself (e.g., “If I am eating with my family…”) in combination with the desired behavior (e.g., “…then I will take veg*n dishes rather than meat”) is a cheap and helpful strategy for turning intention into behavior, and it can be particularly helpful in a situation where there may be norm-based pressure to do something else (e.g., if your family eats a lot of meat). This strategy encourages people to create a concrete goal for how to respond to a challenging situation.
For a more thorough discussion on subjective (or social) norms, visit our blog entitled Leveraging Social Norms For Animal Advocacy and accompanying fact sheet.
In a nutshell, as advocates we have the ability to influence peoples’ attitudes, perceived behavioral control, and subjective norms by 1) informing others, 2) being an example to those close to us, and 3) promoting the use of “if-then” goals. These in turn can impact peoples’ intentions to behave in ways that reduce animal suffering.
An Easy-To-Share Factsheet
At Faunalytics, we’re always striving to make our work as accessible and readily useable as possible. If what you’ve read above is compelling, we’ve compiled a condensed version of this into an easy-to-share factsheet below. Clicking on the share button at the bottom of the graphic will allow you to easily spread the word on social media. If you’d like to download a static image of the graphic, you can click here and save it to your mobile phone or desktop computer.