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‘Health Chatter’: Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health Blog



Actions do not only speak louder than words

By Siu Hing Lo, on 21 November 2013

Failing to do as you say is so common that it is considered part of human nature. New Year’s resolutions – also discussed in one of our blog posts on habits last year – are one of the most telling examples of failed good intentions. Even when the objective is less ambitious than changing bad habits, good intentions often don’t translate into actions. One-off or infrequent behaviours like screening for cancer are also prone to the “intention-behaviour gap” problem.

“Implementation intentions” have been one of the most promising areas of psychological research in the past one or two decades. They are a form of action plans which aim to reduce the intention-behaviour gap. People are typically asked to respond to practical questions about when, where and how they are going to perform the intended actions and how they will overcome potential obstacles. This simple intervention has been consistently shown to increase the odds of people undertaking action.

However, a conventional implementation intentions intervention requires people to formulate an answer for themselves which is difficult to accomplish in large scale public health interventions. For this reason, we described solutions to common barriers in the same format as implementation intentions in our recently published bowel cancer screening field study. These pre-formulated implementation intentions were then incorporated into the existing bowel cancer screening instruction leaflet.

Unfortunately our intervention did not have an effect on overall participation in the bowel cancer screening programme. It seems that the intention-behaviour gap cannot be overcome through passive exposure to action plans. Paradoxically, people apparently need to do something in order to increase the chances of actually doing what they intend to do. Actions not only speak louder than words, they are also more effective than words.


Gollwitzer, P.M. & P. Sheeran (2006), ‘Implementation intentions and goal achievement: a meta-analysis of effects and processes’, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.

Lo, S.H., Good, A., Sheeran, P., Baio, Gianluca, Rainbow, S., Vart, G., von Wagner, C. & J. Wardle (2013), Pre-formulated Implementation Intentions to Promote Colorectal Cancer Screening: a Cluster-Randomized Trial, Health Psychology.

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