Will, Intentions and Change

Change is often less about what we intend to change and our willingness to take action.

If innovation requires us to change something understanding how change happens is important to doing innovation well. Much of the literature on behaviour change emphasizes things like raising awareness, providing information, and shifting people’s intentions. What is often missing is will.

A person might have the intention to change, but do they have the will to make that change real?

Behavioural Willingness is a relatively little used theory that differs from knowledge and intention. The theory was developed by Frederick Gibbons and Meg Gerrard as part of research on adolescent health behaviours. Gibbons and Gerrard wanted to understand how adolescents made decisions about engaging in a risky behaviour.

Behavioural Willingness is about an openness to risk opportunity and understanding it can help us to explain why some people change and others don’t.

Where There’s A Will…

Understanding our willingness to do something is an indication of how we perceive risk and our values associated with that risk. In times of great complexity where assessment of risk is actually quite difficult our willingness might be a better predictor than our intentions.

Consider environmental-related decisions and we can see this in action. Most people will say that they are interested in environmentally responsible actions, yet far fewer actually engage in those behaviours. My intention to reduce consumption or refrain from certain behaviours is not the same as actually doing it.

If I am willing to consider environmentally harmful choices, I might be less likely to convert intentions to actions. The reason for this is that I am at least entertaining the idea of engaging in a problematic behaviour. When I consider something to be possible I also see it as more likely to happen. When I am unwilling to engage in a behaviour, the likelihood disappears from my thinking. (Even if it is still possible that the behaviour will take place).

Will to Identity

Our willingness to do something is tied to our identity. Identities are among the most powerful forces for personal and social change. Psychologist Adam Grant has written extensively about the role identity plays in shaping our decisions. Our identity is a lens in how we see the world and perceive risk – so it makes sense that it is tied to willingness. To illustrate, if your identity is tied to your diet you use that to shape your food choices. Thus, a committed vegan is unwilling to eat a steak or a devout Jew or Muslim is unwilling to eat pork. Just as Grant says “your ideas are not your identity” — they can be.

When we connect positive identity affiliations to behaviour the gap between positive intentions and actions closes. Our identity is both and individual and a collective trait and must be address individually and with others. Another way to frame this is: our identity is defined by the company we keep in our families, workplaces, faith communities, professions and social circles.

Tying identity to our change efforts is a way to generating more will to action.

For behavioural designers, this means creating spaces, places, and contexts that support development of positive identities. But only if we are willing.

Photo by Daniel Seßler on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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