This year we have another cohort beginning The Ecosomatics Practitioner Training, as well as a group continuing on for a second year, and I’m thrilled to be with them. Over the year they’ll develop the skills and mental models to address a broad range of physical and psychological problems that face people today.
One of the most important subjects we cover is the nature of change and persistence in complex systems. After all, our work revolves around adjusting perception and action, and this means that we have to be able to create conditions in which those desired changes can arise most easily.
Inevitably this brings us face to face with the intention-behavior gap. Quite often those of us in the helping professions find that if we present clients with things to work on in between sessions, they have difficulty following through – despite their best intentions.
Behavior change is a complex process, but when you have an understanding of the underlying principles, it becomes much easier to do the things you intend to do and create the changes you wish to make in your life.
In one of the most widely cited articles on the subject, Paschal Sheeran (2005) identifies several key concepts to effective behavior change, including implementation intentions, degree of intention formation, attitudinal intentions, schematic intentions, and conflict identification. I’ll walk you through each below and share some thoughts on practical application.
Behavior, roughly speaking, is what an organism does relative to its environment. Like the meaning of words, behavior depends on context. An organism can’t not behave – that is to say that everything that occurs (even “nothing”) is behavior. However, whether or not the behavior assists the organism in pursuit of its goals depends on the “fit” of the behavior and the environment. This meaningful relationship to the environment plays a significant role in closing the intention-intervention gap.
Before saying more, it’s worth a brief detour to explore the otherwise vague notion of meaning.
It’s a word that is often used without a clear definition. Bateson (1967) writes that meaning “may be regarded as an approximate synonym of pattern, redundancy, information, and ‘restraint,’” That which is meaningful serves an organizing function in our lives. Meaning establishes a pattern of our experience. It reduces the perception of randomness of the events that occur in our lives. It creates redundancy, such that certain events become more predictable. In other words we domesticate uncertainty through meaning. Likewise it can be understood as informational in nature, telling us both what a thing is and isn’t and thereby restraining our responses to it (responding in a random manner to the events of our lives proves impossible in practice and disastrous in theory).
These notions of meaning, pattern, redundancy, information, and restraint prove very useful when attempting to change behavior. This brings us to the notion of the implementation intention. Consider for a moment the ill-defined intention to “exercise more.” Such an intention is doomed to fail. What is more? How much is enough? When, where, and how to exercise? These are questions regarding the implementation of the intention, and unless they are specified the force of habit will likely prevail.
In the formation of an implementation intention we specify the context in which the intended behavior will be performed. A cybernetic perspective leads us to think in terms of when/then linkages, such that “then” refers to the intended behavior and “when” refers to some behavioral or environmental referent. For example, “when I’ve had my morning coffee, then I will perform my kettlebell training. When I’ve finished my kettlebell training, then I will get in the shower.”
(Note: “perform my kettlebell training” only works as an intention if I am familiar with what that means. This may be obvious, but experience reveals that abstraction is a trap. If we are not able to specify what constitutes “performing kettlebell training,” we have difficulty in enacting that intention.)
In this example I’ve situated the intended behavior within a specific context of implementation. This links it to other, more familiar behaviors as well as an environment, and as a result it is much more probable that I will follow through on the intention. This, by the way, is essentially what we’re looking to do when closing the intention-behavior gap: increase the probability of certain behaviors while reducing the probability of others. We can’t guarantee anything, but we can do a lot to adjust the probability distribution.
Degree of Intention Formation
I think of this as the ecology of our intentions. It describes the “worldedness” of our intentions, the degree to which they are of consequence to our lived experience. This can be summarized by two questions:
- What then?
- If not?
“What then?” refers to the consequences of enacting the intended behavior. In the example above, I might think that if I perform my kettlebell training in that context, then I’ll be more likely to take a cold shower, which I know will have myriad other benefits for me. Likewise I’ll have a nice metabolic stimulus and will enjoy the body composition benefits of mobilizing adipose tissue stores throughout the morning. My mood will likely be better, and I’ll have demonstrated efficacy to myself (“Look, I can do things after all”), both of which are incredibly valuable assets to me in the dark, rainy winter months.
“If not?” prompts consideration of the alternative future, the one in which we fail to enact the intention. It’s worth knowing we have a cognitive bias to minimize our experience of pain, so many of us will tend to skip over this. Don’t do that. It’s painful to think about the consequences of not following through on our intentions, but the beauty of thinking is that we can learn from possible scenarios without needing to experience them directly.
In the above example, I might think that if I don’t perform my kettlebell training, then I’m much more likely to take a hot shower (mornings are cold here). If I take a hot shower, then I know that I’ll be uncomfortable later on, and my body will have a helluva time regulating my temperature throughout the morning. Likewise, I know that I’m not as inclined to train later in the day, so I’ll probably end up skipping it altogether. I’ll feel guilty in that case, thinking that I’m out of alignment with how I want to be in the world.
You can see that the degree of intention formation sets the stakes for the enactment of our intentions. However, this is not about relying on willpower or forcing ourselves to do something that we really don’t want to do, which brings us to our next concept…
In contrast to normatively derived intentions, attitudinal intentions spring forth from personal values and beliefs. We are much more prone to adopt new behaviors if we perceive a sense of agency in their selection.
This brings us into the realm of shoulds, oughts, and compulsions. It won’t be a surprise to you to say that people generally don’t enjoy being subject to another person’s standards and expectations. However, we’re quick to internalize the norms of the Other, and we can mistake them as our own. When attempting to make a change, local solutions tend to be the best ones, and making use of attitudinal intentions “localizes” the behavior change.
When I am working with clients to think through difficulties, I’ll often ask them something like,
“In a pinch, what would your gut hunch be on how to handle this?”
Whether it’s a movement-related challenge, a problem in their relationships, or something to do with their businesses, it turns out that people are pretty intelligent. Many of us simply have a difficult time trusting ourselves and our ability to address the problems that we encounter. Yet these gut hunches often prove to be very reliable. The added benefit is that they are more likely to be adopted and implemented.
These are closely related to attitudinal intentions, but a key difference is in the logical level. Consider a schematic intention as the sort of behavior that the sort of person you see yourself as would do.
Each of us develops an internal representation of ourselves as a certain sort of person in a certain sort of world. This is our character, developed in response to our early environment. Confident, affable, accommodating, aggressive – each of these adjectives describes not a fixed attribute of a person but a way of relating to their surroundings. These are effectively categories of behavior, a sort of behavior enacted by a sort of person.
This is reminiscent of the phrase Moshe Feldenkrais uses in the book Awareness Through Movement, “We act in accordance with our self-image.” We engage in the sorts of behavior that are nested within the idea we have of ourselves.
When attempting to implement a novel behavior, its success depends in large part on its ability to be framed as the sort of thing that the individual is likely to do. This might involve reframing the behavior or reframing the self – either can be effective.
As an example, if a client is experiencing difficulty in adopting an intended behavior, I might ask them, “What sort of person would have an easy time with this?” Let’s imagine that they respond “Committed.” I could then work with them to explore whether there have been instances in their life that they’ve been “committed,” in which case we can reframe the intention as the sort of behavior they might be likely to perform.
Inevitably some of the goals that we pursue will come into conflict (note: a “goal” is simply an idea that organizes behavior across an interval of time – it needn’t be conscious. Regulating body temperature is as much of a goal as running a marathon.). If we are concerned with increasing the probability of certain behaviors, then we would do well to explore how to reduce the probability of others.
I’ll often ask clients something along the lines of,
“If you were going to mess this up, how do you think you would?”
People know themselves pretty well. In my earlier example of kettlebell training I know that if I consume alcohol after a certain point in the evening, it will disrupt my sleep, making me much less likely to follow through on my training. I can then inquire into the context in which I’m most likely to have a drink. In my case I know that if I push myself too hard through the day, then I am more inclined to crave a drink at the end of the day to “take the edge off.”
This provides me with a clue.
The way that I engage in my workday has an indirect influence on the probability that I will implement the desired behavior. As indicated previously, the desired behavior also has an influence on how I engage in my workday, so a circular relationship is established. The beauty of cybernetic systems is that an intervention is available at any point in the circle.
It (usually) isn’t a matter of completely doing away with an undesired behavior. It’s a matter of creating conditions that reduce the probability of it occurring. I know well enough that if I set aside time for a walk and a nap after lunch or end my day with a bit of Awareness Through Movement practice, then I don’t feel as drained. Therefore I don’t find myself in a context in which having a drink is as desirable.
Conflicts emerge in context. When you recognize the conflict and the context in which it arises, you have a lot of leverage available to adjust your behavior across time.
Hopefully this gives you some insight into how you can make adjustments that close the gap between intention and action. There is of course a question that remains about the relationship between the conscious and not-conscious aspects of ourselves. A person could utilize the approach described above in order to establish a tyranny of conscious intention. That, it seems, is not the most effective long term strategy. What we might yearn for instead is a graceful, receptive relationship between the varied parts of ourselves. But that’s a subject for another day…