Make a Plan

Getting someone to make a plan for how they'll carry out the behavior you're promoting, or showing them very clearly how to do the behavior, can be helpful for getting them to follow through. It can help bridge the attitude/behavior gap in which people believe in something yet don't act accordingly. Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that self–control, a very important element in adopting a new behavior, is most likely to occur when a person focuses on a specific and reachable goal (Loke, Bryan and Kendall 1968; Kanfer and Goldstein 1975).

In the 1960s Yale professor Howard Leventhal wanted to see whether high–fear or low–fear appeals would be more successful in convincing students to get tetanus shots from the campus health center. He prepared two different booklets on the subject, with the high fear version containing graphic pictures of tetanus victims and highly descriptive language of the horrors of tetanus. The low fear booklet contained similar information but lacked the pictures and descriptive language. The students who received the high fear booklets were more convinced of the dangers of tetanus and the importance of getting tetanus shots. However when Leventhal tracked actual behavior, he found that both booklets produced the same rate of compliance: a paltry three percent of students went to get a tetanus shot. In this situation, increased attitude change in the high–fear group did not lead to increased behavior change.

In a follow up experiment, Leventhal added one seemingly minor change to the booklets. He added a campus map on which the health center was circled, and listed the times that tetanus vaccines were available. He also asked students who received the booklets to make a plan for what time they'd go to get a shot and what route they'd take to get to the health center. Even though the students were seniors and probably knew where the health center was, simply adding the map and asking students to make a plan for when and how they'd go to get shots increased actual compliance from three percent to twenty-eight percent (with the low–fear booklets equally as effective as the high–fear booklets). In this situation it was not greater attitude change that was needed, but clear instructions on how to make the change. In imagining the route they'd take and the time they'd arrive, the process of getting a tetanus shot became more mentally available to students and therefore made it seem more desirable and important (Leventhal, Singer and Jones 1965).

Along the same lines, implementation intentions have been shown to be successful in maintaining behavior change in areas where it's easy to stray. Implementation intentions are statements like “If a friend asks me to go out drinking, then I will go to a coffee shop instead” (a useful implementation intention for a recovering alcoholic). Implementation intentions have been shown to be effective in increasing compliance with speed limits (Elliott and Armitage 2006), decreasing the amount people drive ,Eriksson Garvill and Nordlund 2008), increasing the use of public transportation and increasing the patronage of stores that sell more sustainable products (Bamberg 2002).

Providing clear instructions—even if the instructions should be obvious—and asking people to make a plan can be helpful in getting people to bridge the gap between attitudes and actions. If we're encouraging people to eat locally grown produce, providing a detailed map with the locations and times of nearby farmers markets is essential. Groups trying to prevent sexual assault might encourage people to develop implementation intensions such as “If I see a person too inebriated to take care of themselves, then I will help them get a cab home.”