The Say-Do Gap

People want to live in a more sustainable way, but a range of barriers prevents them from doing so. Behavioural science offers actionable strategies to close the say-do gap.

The say-do gap is the dilemma of reported concern or intentions not being followed up in action. It can lead to some unsatisfying and possibly inaccurate observations, i.e. people care about the environment but are not willing to do anything about it. But what are the reasons behind the lack of action? And, more importantly, how can we help to turn this around?

Behavioural science shows us that there are multiple influences on our behaviour and Ipsos has developed a framework for understanding them. The MAPPS framework represents the key dimensions of behaviour which include both internal and external aspects (e.g. personal motivation or the influence of our physical environment).

Addressing the Sustainability Say-Do Gap

Our white paper brings together the topics of the say-do gap and sustainability. By gaining a deeper understanding of what influences behaviour in the real world, we can identify possibilities to encourage people to do things that they are already inclined to do. Taking this kind of leadership is a duty placed on the shoulders of decision-makers.

Here we look at each category in turn, referring specifically to sustainable behaviours.


One of the most common barriers is that if people don’t feel personally responsible, they will lack motivation to act. In terms of sustainability, we know that, overall, people do feel responsible to act – even if they think business and government should do more. Helping people to identify themselves as someone who takes action, e.g. through public campaigns to save water, can encourage motivation.


Enacting sustainable behaviours is not always straightforward and knowing what to do can test our capabilities. An approach to settling confusion is ‘schema management’ through which new information can be integrated into existing views of the world in ways that make sense to the individual and enable them to act.


The way that cognitive processing and adaptive decision-making works means that people can in some situations rely on more automatic behaviours rather than thinking through their choices more deliberately – especially if the stakes are low, i.e. if they feel their behaviour won’t make a meaningful impact on climate change, or the risk is low.


The structural environment can put limits on our behaviour. For example, those who live in an apartment are 50% less likely to recycle. Costs and availability also have an impact in a physical sense. Often, the more sustainable option incurs a greater financial cost and isn’t as readily available as less sustainable options.


What others do and care about affects our own opinions and behaviours, so reinforcing the norm of environmentally conscious behaviour is important. This can be done through signalling (e.g. messages on tote bags) and is even more effective in conjunction with regulations which shift what is seen as acceptable.


Ipsos survey data shows that, generally, people want to live in a sustainable way and "do their bit” towards environmental protection. But, as our behavioural science framework shows, a range of barriers can mean that we do not always act in ways that work towards these goals. A deeper understanding of what underlies the choices we make can support consumers to enact their better intentions.

Read more about public opinion data showing a say-do gap in sustainability in Breaking Old Habits.

Adressing the SustainabilityRead more about Ipsos’ Behavioural Science white paper in The Sustainability Say-Do Gap.




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