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Closing the intention-action gap through gamification

Why is it so hard to start a new habit? Why is it so difficult to change our own behaviour for the better?

One lens through which to view behaviour change is through what behavioural economist call the 'intention-action gap'. This is basically the difference between what we say we want to do (intention) and what we actually do (action).

Having an intention do to a behaviour is the first step to creating a new way of acting or a building a new habit. But you just have to look at the number of unfulfilled New Year's resolutions to see that there is more to enacting a behaviour than intention alone.

The problem with creating a new behaviour, whether it be for ourselves or someone else, is that humans are inherently biased towards sticking with the status quo and favouring immediate gratification and short-term goals over more meaningful fulfilment in the long term. Take exercise or saving money, for example. Most of us would like to be fitter and have more money. Some of us even set out to get into better shape and save more and spend less. But even fewer of us actually do that. And this is because doing something new takes effort - whether it be cognitive load, deviating from social norms, or physical exertion.

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What we need to close this intention-action gap and actually do the behaviour is either a trigger in our environment, known as choice architecture, or what Dr Timothy A Pychyl calls a 'creative commitment device'.

Choice architecture, a term coined by Thaler and Sunstein, is the way in which the context is organised to influence decision making. An example of this is the way in which food is laid out in supermarkets (we tend to buy things at eye level), the way food quantity is displayed (we tend to choose the middle option, regardless of the amount of liquid in the coffee cup ), and the way food is packaged (we tend to eat less when we need to unwrap it in portions). And there are many other behavioural economic 'nudges' to encourage people to make better decisions.

Creative commitment device is something you do to help you make the better decision. A classic example is in the tale of Ulysses, who tied himself to the mast of his ship in order to avoid being tempted by the singing Sirens. Ulysses used a creative commitment device to help himself do the right behaviour and not give in to gratification.

Gamification helps bridge the intention-action gap.

Gamification works on several levels to nudge our behaviour. In the workplace, for example, we know we should keep up with our professional development, we should contribute to company events and innovation challenges, and we should thank that colleague that is always helpful. But we get busy and it's easier to just focus on our emails than go to the effort of doing these useful behaviours. A gamified staff experience is one way to close this gap, by giving individuals a creative commitment device that helps them stick to their professional goals and are rewarded for prosocial organisational behaviours.

The same works for personal habits like fitness and finance. There is an increasing number of apps using gamification to help us be better with our health and money. Examples include FitBit, AppleWatch and Fitocracy, who all use game mechanics to reward you for taking those few extra steps and getting more exercise into our day.

Want to know more about how to close the intention-action gap for yourself or your team?

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