Why Good Intentions Have Such a Bad Reputation
Good intentions are useless attempts to interfere with scientific laws. Their origin is pure vanity. Their result is absolutely nil.”
Perhaps you agree with Oscar Wilde’s words. Bold intentions to lose weight, control your mood, feel less stress or generally live in a more healthy way are met in the best case with an indulgent smile and a sympathetic pat on the shoulder by your friends. We’ve heard it before, and there is reason to be skeptical — all of us know how hard it is to put good intentions into practice.
But even so there is no reason to completely give up those good intentions. Studies show that they really can lead to concrete lifestyle changes.1 But the connection is weak – conscious intentions affect only 20-30% of the variation in people’s behavior. Deeply rooted habits have a much greater impact.
Our intentions to achieve various goals (e.g. to experience health) are determined by overarching attitudes, norms and personal desires. In some cases our habits are completely in line with these goals. But in many cases the habits are more likely counterproductive.
The difficulty is therefore not in formulating good intentions, but replacing old habits with new ones that increase the possibility of realizing the intention. When we are faced with a situation and do not have a clear plan for how we should act, often the habit intervenes – regardless of our intentions.1 This applies especially when habits are governed by short-term enjoyment at the cost of long-term problems, such as eating sweets even though in the long term it is counterproductive to health.
A number of studies by the psychologist Peter Gollwitzer in New York and others show that the intentions must be complemented with an implementation plan.1 An implementation plan entails that we decide in advance how we should act if a given situation arises. For example:
”If I get hungry in the evening, then I will have a piece of fruit (instead of something less nutritious).
”If I can choose between elevator, escalator and stairs, then I will choose the stairs.”
”If I feel stressed, then I will take a deep breath and see how I can prioritize what is most essential.”
This may seem quite obvious, but studies show that most people actually lack a clear strategy for realizing their intentions in everyday life.2 The lack of an implementation plan is in reality one of the main reasons that many heroic resolutions about a healthier life fall short.
A Dutch study showed that persons who made a clear plan for how they should eat in various situations really did get healthier eating habits than individuals who did not have an implementation plan, even though the intention to eat healthier was by and large just as great in both groups. Fortunately the study also showed that implementation plans were effective, even among participants who had particularly unhealthy habits.2
Implementation plans are so effective, just because they connect a signal to an action in advance. When we find ourselves in the heat of the moment, our field of vision becomes limited and it is hard to see alternative possibilities. A clear implementation plan increases our attention to the signals in our surroundings and facilitates constructive reactions. Peter Gollwitzer says that we ourselves decide the overall strategy, but turn over daily control to the environment (we cannot affect which signals cross our path but on the other hand we can control how we respond).1
Open questions are a good way to investigate various possibilities to realize intentions and get a concrete implementation plan. Once we have decided on a plan, we should then consistently stick to it. The more often the connection between the signal and the new action is repeated, the sooner it will be habitual.1 In this way we can supplant the old habits and replace them with new ones, which are more in line with our long-term goals.
The majority of intentions to live healthier is probably an expression of the fact that we genuinely value our health (even if Oscar Wilde would have been skeptical). But without a clear plan, indeed the result can easily become ”absolutely nil.”
How can you realize your good intentions?
Gollwitzer P. American Psychologist. Vol. 54. No. 7, 493-503
Verplanken B. et al. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 29, 591-604 (1999)