How many times have you made plans to exercise or eat healthier, but not followed through? You may think “I’ll go to the gym right after work,” but when you get to the end of the day you go home instead. Often we struggle moving from forming intentions to act to actually performing behaviors. An article published this month in Health Psychology suggests that it is easier to turn intentions into behaviors when your intentions are based on how you expect to feel about the behavior.
In this study, researchers examined the relationship between intentions to act and various health behaviors (e.g. eating five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, exercising regularly). Researchers also considered other motives people have that might change this relationship such as how one feels about performing a behavior, or what one believes other think about their behavior. Participants in the UK completed questionnaires at three different times, spanning two months, that assessed their intentions, behaviors, and motives to change that might impact the relation between intentions and behaviors. The researchers found that when people’s intentions to act are based on expecting to feel regret for not performing a behavior, people were more likely to follow through on their intentions. Despite looking at many possible motives, only the expected feelings of regret mattered in strengthening the relation between intentions and behavior.
The study had several strengths that make the findings particularly compelling. First, several different health behaviors were examined, so the benefit of basing intentions in anticipated regret is not limited to one single behavior. Instead, the findings suggest anticipating regret strengthens the likelihood of acting for various behaviors. A second strength of the study was that the researchers looked at many potential motives for people’s intentions. Examining various motives strengthens the confidence one has in the finding that anticipated regret is particularly influential in the relation between intentions and behavior. Finally, the researchers were able to examine how anticipated emotions influence the relation between intentions formed at one time and behavior performed later (a prospective study). This aspect of the study design increases confidence that the researchers have identified a meaningful relationship.
These findings suggest that in order to ensure we follow through on our intentions, it may be helpful to base our intentions on how we expect to feel after the behavior rather than focusing on what we think we should do, or how we feel about the behavior. For example, it may be useful to consider the regret we may feel if we do not eat our daily servings of fruits and vegetables or do not exercise.
Reference. Conner, M.C., McEachan, R., Lawton, R., & Gardner, P. (2016). Basis of intentions as a moderator of the intention-health behavior relationship. Health Psychology, 35, 3, 219-227.