Are you someone who claims to care about the environment, yet also sometimes drinks cocktails through a plastic straw? Are you someone who condemns dog meat farms in Korea, yet also sometimes indulges a steak?
What does that say about you? Probably less than you think. You may be experiencing a value-action-gap: The gap we find between the values we hold and the actions we take. We may hold the value of compassion, yet scream furious obscenities at the person who dared to cut us off in traffic: Value versus action. Typically, after the incident, the gap will make us feel uncomfortable, guilty, angry, or anxious as we have acted in conflict with our values. It is one of the most common challenges for human nature.
So why do we do it? Researchers suggest that there are four steps to changing our behaviours:
- Acquiring Knowledge
- Creating Value
- Setting Intention
- Performing Action
Learning how our current behaviours may damage the environment is crucial to creating new values around environmental care. Our existing behaviours may now be in conflict with our new value. Thus, we set the intention to change our actions to support our belief in environmental care. As a last step, this intention needs to be translated into action.
People are at varying stages of this four-step process as they interact with the world around them. A key component of progressing from knowledge to value is emotion. Advertisers facilitate this – a heart-wrenching commercial on starving children moves us quickly through the first two steps: gaining knowledge (or reminders) that children in the world are suffering, and creation (or reminder) of values such as empathy or human rights.
But how do these commercials help us activate intention and action? The answer lies in empowerment and simplicity. Messages like “Your HK$30 can help save this child” empower us – not only do they suggest an action that aligns with our emotion and values, but it also implies that creating change lies in our hands. Barriers toward action are removed by making it simple to give our donation via credit card, paypal, and sometimes even just a text message to the displayed number.
So are you a true hypocrite – someone who claims to have high values when their actions tell a different story? We have all been guilty of the value-action-gap at some point in our lives – this is not enough to reflect a stable hypocritical character trait, but rather indicates a dynamic mismatch between value and action that may arise depending on the situation. How can we reduce it? We can recreate emotion, empowerment, and simplicity, and find ways to help jog our mind into remembering the habits we want to develop.
Seek emotional experiences around the values you have: both sad ones that strengthen your desire to change, but also happy ones that reward you for implementing new habits. Do not force yourself to form a particular value just because it is socially desirable. Instead follow your heart and take small steps in areas that are genuinely important to you.
Engage with small steps for change – looking only at the bigger picture can quickly make us feel disempowered: how can one small action change the many problems in this world?
Simplicity is often the hardest one to crack: Our human nature always seeks convenience and comfort. Plan ahead to make it easier to align your actions with your values. If your value is environmental care, pack a little reusable cutlery set in every bag or find a reusable bottle you really like. If your value is compassion, think of specific behaviours that would reflect this value and start to try them on your friends. If you practice your actions in calm, positive times, you will be much more likely to access them in times when you are tired, stressed, or angry.
And finally, give yourself room for error and improvement. Your little actions will make greater impact than you give them credit for. Getting up and trying again is half the battle.