SupervisorDr Rosina Watson

The Research Opportunity

The question of how to become more sustainable is one of the most important and challenging faced by society today. A number of the key issues affecting the future of our species focus on the link between our natural, social and economic environments (Elkington, 1997), and how we manage these environments to mitigate our negative impacts and restore degraded natural systems.

While sustainability can be a complex phenomenon to research, some areas are more advanced than others, founded as they are on both solid scientific research and support by the general public. One such area is climate change, where there is wide scientific consensus not only on the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate effects, but also on the fact that 'the global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming' (IPCC, 2007: 37; King, 2004). And the majority of people in Western society agree - climate change is considered a serious issue that needs immediate action (Curry, Ansolabehere & Herzog, 2007; European Commission, 2008). But given the seriousness of these concerns by scientists and the general public alike, why is there still such a large gap between good intentions and action on climate change (e.g. Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002)? And why does this gap appear to be even larger in other parts of sustainability, such as redressing human rights abuses in the production of products like footwear and natural resource extraction? Why is it that we understand these problems exist, and yet do very little about them at work, in our homes, or in other areas of our lives?

The literature on the intention-behaviour gap with regard to sustainability is significantly under-developed, and has found complex and contradictory results (e.g. Castaldo, Perrini, Misani & Tencati, 2009; Sen & Bhattacharya, 2001). Of that which exists, much focuses on behavioural intentions. Thus, when discussing the intention-behaviour gap, it asks participants either to reconstruct their intentions based on past behaviour, or to predict future behaviour based on existing intentions (e.g. Marin, Ruiz & Rubio, 2009; D'Souza, Taghian, Khosla, 2007). The second, related problem is that much of this work uses self-report methods such as surveys and interviews to generate the data. This is problematic due to the significant social desirability bias that exists in this field (e.g. Weaver, Trevino & Cochrane, 1999; Donaldson & Grant-Vallone, 2002), suggesting the need for more observational techniques used in combination with other approaches. A third key problem with this literature is that these questionnaires and interview guides implicitly and explicitly seek to identify the stated behaviour of individuals in specific roles - 'consumers', 'managers' or 'households' - therefore pulling participants into specific role identities and behaviours to generate the data. This leaves underexplored many issues of how we reconcile our values and behaviours as we switch between roles.

Overall, this literature has yet to provide suitable understanding of what characterizes the intention-behaviour gap in this field and how it might be reduced. As a result of their own study into this gap specific to climate change, Stoll-Kleemann, O'Riordan & Jaeger (2001:107) suggested that: "more attention needs to be given to the social and psychological motivations as to why individuals erect barriers to their personal commitment to climate change mitigation, even when professing anxiety over climate futures". Thus, even in areas of sustainability with solid scientific foundation, we have yet to understand how to close the intention-behaviour gap.

Research in other areas, such as consumer behaviour, provides similar problems. First, much of it focuses on consumer attitudes and intentions to purchase and not the actual purchasing data itself (i.e. Change & Chou, 2008; Teng, 2009). Second, it often relies on self-reported behaviour to investigate these purchase intentions, and thirdly, it focuses only on the 'consumer' role that the participants play within society. Nonetheless, it is possible that the area of consumer behaviour may provide some insights into the gap and can perhaps be expanded to provide support for this research area.

The other key issue is that sustainability is a distinct context from others previously investigated such as consumer purchase intentions, better health intentions, or better investment intentions (e.g. Smith, Terry, Manstead, Louis, Kotterman, Wolfs, 2008; Schwarzer, 2008; Angeletos, Laibson, Repetto, Tobacman & Weinberg, 2001). This is because the chain of behaviour-consequence is more indirect, causing difficulties in seeing the consequences (positive and negative) of our actions, and this results in sustainability-related actions being in large part motivated by improving 'the commons'. Thus, unlike purchasing or investment decisions, or healthy living choices where intentions and actions have direct relevance and pertinence for the individual, and where the consequences of behaviour have a direct positive or negative impact on the individual, sustainability is indirect and relies on good science to demonstrate behavioural consequences.

Clearly the need exists for additional research in this area to conduct in-depth investigations, using a range of methods including observation and in-depth psychological techniques as well as quantitative methods, to further characterize this gap and provide guidance on how to reduce it. While a range of research is encouraged, three broad themes around which research is required would seem to be:

  1. How do the messages we receive impact our intentions and behaviour around sustainability?
    This area refers to the messages we receive whether through the media, while interacting with companies, NGOs and/or governments, while interacting with peers and so on. These include such things as advertising, lobbying campaigns and political speeches that try to influence the way we think about and act on sustainability.
  1. How do the policies that we encounter at work and in our communities affect our intentions and behaviour around sustainability?
    This area refers to the more formal aspects of our lives such as policies at work, legislation and regulation of councils and national governments, standards from intergovernmental bodies such as the UN and ILO, and policies at places where we purchase goods and services (such as 5p plastic bags, or required carbon offsetting of flights).
  1. How do the informal systems in which we interact affect our intentions and behaviour around sustainability?
    This area looks at human behaviour and how we use our power and influence to affect the behaviour of others, either in encouraging or discouraging more sustainable attitudes and actions.

Possible approaches include

  1. Real-time experience tracking, a research technique that enables customers to be tracked over time through self-reported text messages using their mobile phones. Customers might be tracked, for example, in a product category with strong sustainability implications, such as cars. Or customer attitudes and behaviours towards political parties might be tracked with particular reference to sustainability-related policies.
  2. Experimental approaches, either in a laboratory or field experiments with the collaboration of companies.
  3. Social media, whether passively observed or actively manipulated, perhaps fused with other data such as purchases of relevant responsible (or irresponsible) products.
  4. In-depth psychological techniques such as repertory grid (Lemke, Clark & Wilson, 2011).

Candidate Profile

These topics will suit aspiring academics who are interested in customer attitudes and behaviour, and of course in sustainability. Many projects would require some statistical ability and/or willingness to learn more; real-time experience tracking projects would be particularly demanding statistically. Qualitative approaches are, however, possible too. All require a sharp brain and excellent writing skills.


We gratefully thank Dr Krista Bondy, formerly of Cranfield and now at Bath, for her role in jointly authoring an earlier version of this call with Hugh Wilson.


Angeletos, G., Laibson, D., Repetto, A., Tobacman, J. & Weinberg, S. 2001. The hyperbolic consumption model: calibration, simulation and empirical evaluation. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 15(3): 47-68.
Castaldo, S., Perrini, F., Misani, N. & Tencati, A. 2009. The missing link between corporate social responsibility and consumer trust: The case of Fair Trade products. Journal of Business Ethics, 84: 1-15.
Chang, C. & Chou, Y. 2008. Goal orientation and comparative valence in persuasion. Journal of Advertising; 37(1): 73-87.
Curry, T., Ansolabehere, S. & Herzog, H. 2007. A survey of public attitudes towards climate change and climate change mitigation technologies in the United States: Analysis of 2006 results. Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Working Paper series MIT LFEE 2007-01 WP. (13 January, 2009).
D’Souza, C., Taghian, M. & Khosla, R. 2007. Examination of environmental beliefs and its impact on the influence of price, quality and demographic characteristics with respect to green purchase intention. Journal of Targeting, Measurement and Analysis for Marketing, 15(2): 69-78.Donaldson, S. & Grant-Vallone, E. 2002. Understanding self-report bias in organizational research. Journal of Business and Psychology, 17(2): 245-260.
Elkington, J. 1997. Cannibals with forks: The triple bottom line of 21st century business, Oxford: Capstone.
European Commission 2008. Europeans’ Attitudes Towards Climate Change. European Commission. (13 January, 2009).
IPCC. 2007. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (16 January, 2009).
King, D. 2004. Climate Change Science: Adapt, Mitigate, or Ignore? Science, 303(5655): 176 – 177
Kollmuss, A. & Agyeman, J. 2002. Mind the gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior? Environmental Education Research, 8(3): 239 – 260.
Lemke, F., Clark, M. & Wilson, H. 2011. Customer experience quality: an exploration in business and consumer contexts using repertory grid. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.
Marin, L., Ruiz, S. & Rubio, A. 2009. The role identity salience in the effects of corporate social responsibility on consumer behaviour. Journal of Business Ethics, 84: 65-78.
Macdonald, E., Wilson, H. and Konus, U. 2012, Better customer insight – in real time. Harvard Business Review.
Schwarzer, R. 2008. Modeling health behaviour change: How to predict and modify the adoption and maintenance of health behaviours. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 57(1): 1-29.
Sen, S. & Bhattacharya, C.B. 2001. Does doing good always lead to doing better? Consumer reactions to corporate social responsibility. Journal of Marketing Research, 38: 225-243.
Smith, J., Terry, D., Manstead, A., Louis, W., Kotterman, D. & Wolfs, J. 2008. The attitude-behaviour relationship in consumer conduct: The role of norms, past behaviour, and self-identity. The Journal of Social Psychology, 148(3): 311-333.
Stoll-Kleemann, S., O'Riordan, T. & Jaeger, C. 2001. The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups. Global Environmental Change, 11: 107-117.
Teng, L. 2009. A comparison of two types of price discounts in shifting consumers' attitudes and purchase intentions. Journal of Business Research, 62(1): 14.


Dr Rosina Watson Tel: +44 (0)1234 751122  |  Email: