Feb 17, 2022

Why we find it so difficult to make long-term behavioral changes

“You don’t need to do everything perfectly”

A woman unpacks her shopping from a canvas tote bag.

By now, most people know a lot about climate protection, environmental protection and what we need to do to conserve resources and limit climate change. Nevertheless, we don’t do much of it. Sometimes we just lack a bit of courage to really make changes. In an interview with Professor Rüdiger Hahn and Stefanie Fella from the Henkel-Endowed Chair of Sustainability Management at the Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf, we talk about how to break old patterns of behavior. The full interview is also available in German on the Fritz for Future podcast.

Prof. Hahn, especially nowadays it is particularly important that we act sustainably and are very deliberate with the decisions we take. A lot of people would like to change something about their behavior but ultimately don't do it. What is it that keeps us from doing the things we should?

Prof. Rüdiger Hahn: In science, this phenomenon is called the intention-behavior gap. It describes the gap between our positive intentions and our actual behavior. There are many reasons for this gap, such as general convenience, ignorance, or learned behaviors that prevent us from acting in a certain way. However, the phenomenon isn’t specific to sustainability; it’s true of various areas of our lives.

Stefanie Fella: Even if you research this topic, as I do, you are not immune to the intention-behavior gap. It goes without saying that I try to take sustainable decisions in my personal life, but I’m not perfect either. An important first step in overcoming the gap is to constantly question your own behavior. For example: Why do I eat meat? Perhaps putting salami on my toast in the morning is simply a habit from my childhood? Personally, I dealt with this problem by switching from toast to cereal with fruit for my breakfast. So, the question of salami is no longer relevant for me. It can be helpful to remember that you don’t need to do everything perfectly from day one.

Stefanie Fella, Henkel-Endowed Chair of Sustainability Management at the Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf


An important first step is to constantly question your own behavior, and also to remember that you don’t need to do everything perfectly.

It is important to be able to identify the problem and investigate the causes. You’re looking not only at why these gaps exist, but also at how we can close them.

Prof. Rüdiger Hahn: That’s right, but we’re a long way from coming up with a definitive solution. It’s more a case of us identifying various clues that could help us to bridge this gap. The findings are quite varied because there can be so many different reasons for the phenomenon. Lack of belief in oneself might be one reason, for instance. Or being convinced that one person acting alone cannot achieve anything. Information and education can be used to counteract these views. Another problem is the convenience factor. If we can create new products that simplify people’s lives and they finally realize that sustainable solutions don’t necessarily mean you have to go without, that will be another important step forward.

It’s clear there are many different factors that contribute to the intention-behavior gap. What is the best way to tackle them?

Stefanie Fella: The spillover effect is definitely important, and it can have both negative and positive implications. A positive scenario would be, for example, if you started to cycle to work and gain several benefits from it at the same time. You’re doing something good for the environment and getting fitter at the same time. Such side effects might motivate us to transfer the behavior into other areas. There is also a negative side to this experience unfortunately. We talk about moral licensing when you start justifying your own less sustainable actions with more sustainable ones you have already done. For example, you try to compensate for the piece of meat you had for dinner by saying that you took your bike to get to work that day. As we can see, the spillover effect really goes both ways, and it always depends on what the individual person does with it and how they feel about it.   

A man rides an e-scooter.

Alternative means of transport must be convenient and inexpensive to be used.

What about the industry? More and more young companies are striving to make change in society and are rethinking processes and products. How can sustainable developments be implemented in such a way that they are accepted by customers?

Stefanie Fella: We now know that companies and business models that are more sustainable tend to succeed if they target and fulfill the same customer needs as conventional models. If this is not the case, customers often don’t buy into the products. If my goal is to get from A to B and I can do that conveniently and cheaply using a ridesharing service, then I have a real alternative to my own car. I can then factor that into my future decision-making. New business models should also be relatively simple. The more challenging a new desired behavior is, the harder it is to implement. The best-case scenario is that the new solution doesn’t involve making any compromises. The more radical the change, the more difficult it is to implement.

Prof. Rüdiger Hahn: The concept of package-free stores, for example, is such a radical departure from normal shopping behavior. When you open a store like this, you quickly realize that initially the only customers will be people who are sensitive to sustainability. And that’s not the big masses. The crowds will only come when the changes become more normalized and are established at the heart of society, or if the new solution is easier than the conventional one. Therefore, you could start with a stand or a dedicated package-free corner in a supermarket to slowly build up a customer base. This approach involves trying to implement changes bit by bit first, so that people gradually begin to embrace new solutions.

Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Hahn, Henkel-Endowed Chair of Sustainability Management at the Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf


If we can create new products that simplify people’s lives and as a result, they come to realize that sustainable solutions don’t necessarily mean you have to go without, that will be an important step forward.

Certain sustainable trends, such as a meat-free diet, are becoming increasingly popular and are slowly making their way into the middle of society. How much interest is there on the corporate side in helping to shape such new movements?

Prof. Rüdiger Hahn: A lot of companies are testing the waters, especially in the area of sustainability. Young companies with new business models tend to dive into the niches first and take on a lot of the experimental work. Often, these developments are driven by young companies and start-ups. This encourages the bigger, more established companies to move forward with their own sustainable ideas in order to become trailblazers in this area. These dynamics enrich the market for sustainable products.

Stefanie Fella: However, these new developments are accepted differently across generations. Being open to trying new things tends to be more prevalent in the younger generation than among the older ones. In addition to the personal characteristics and values of the target groups, regulation is another very relevant factor. If certain aspects are being driven by politics, such as a ban on single-use plastics, it can help to promote more sustainable behavior.

So it’s not exactly easy to quickly convince the majority of people of sustainable solutions. Even though both start-ups and established companies are currently driving things forward, there are still some obstacles to navigate.

Prof. Rüdiger Hahn: For now, this statement applies to the masses and the average person in society. That’s why it’s important to be clear about the urgency of the situation, particularly with key topics like climate change. Ideally, this should be coupled with the message that despite the dramatic situation, it is still possible to change something. Simply stoking fear would not achieve anything at this point. That's why, in my view, communicating the negative consequences coupled with a proposed solution is the right way to go.

Stefanie Fella: It’s so much nicer to be positively inspired rather than being pressured to make changes through fear. I love to cook with friends who are vegan, for example, who can show me how diverse and delicious vegan food can be. This motivates me to cook more vegan dishes myself and get more involved. This change in behavior is prompted on a social level if your friends are leading the way. When more and more people in our personal environment consume less meat, something like a new social norm is formed for us, to which we can more easily adapt our actions. 

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