We do have solutions to the inconsistency dilemma – are we willing to apply them?

We continue this month with Kathy Miller Perkins on the lack of consistency between our attitudes and behaviour, and how we can shape our personal commitments to fit with our values.

Last month Katrin Muff launched our transatlantic blog by discussing the lack of coherence between what we know and what we do to address the challenges of sustainability.  She maintained that we understand what is at stake (at least most of us do – maybe more in Europe than in the USA).  And, in general, we know what we could do to address the challenges.  However, so often we fail to act accordingly. Katrin suggested that we should strive for greater consistency between our attitudes and our behaviour. I agree with her assertions.  Yet even my own behaviour isn’t always consistent with my espoused values and attitudes. And this inconsistency is common! As it turns out, there are many factors in addition to our sustainability-related values that influence our behaviours.

Multiple Attitudes and Values
Each of us holds many attitudes. Perhaps our behaviour is inconsistent with some of our values and attitudes because it is guided by other attitudes that are either more accessible to a higher priority for us. And we are probably not even aware that we are choosing one attitude over another! We may not even experience any discomfort from this dilemma since the inconsistencies are often unconscious.

Katrin points to her airline travel to make her point. She has not cut back on air travel in order to reduce her carbon footprint and she is is not alone with this inconsistency. I am well aware of the issues with air travel however I continue to fly when and wherever my work takes me.  And I don’t even consider this to be inconsistent with my deep commitment to sustainability. Why?  Because my values concerning “doing whatever it takes to meet my clients’ needs” are more salient and perhaps more important to me.

Yes I get it – Now that I am really analysing this inconsistency, I realize that technologies offer me many ways to meet my clients’ needs without flying.  And yet I haven’t even explored the options with them! Perhaps my clients would be happy to meet with me via the Internet once in a while. And let’s face it – most times flying across the country, if not the globe, to attend a two- hour meeting is ludicrous!

My behaviours don’t have to be “all or none.” I could reduce my flying by evaluating the times when I need to meet face-to-face with my clients versus those times when another method of meeting would serve just as well.

Competing Motives and Emotions
I say (and I believe it) that I am committed to a healthy lifestyle.  Yet frequently I find myself with a spoon and the ice cream carton in hand eating as if I didn’t have any control at all over this behaviour.  And to say that my eating is out of control in these situations would be an under statement! So why am I violating my commitment?  Because my emotions instead of good judgement are driving my behaviour!  Likewise, our unconscious motives and emotions may take precedence over logic when it comes to our sustainability-related behaviours.

For example, I am determined to contribute to solving our world’s sustainability dilemmas, yet I may choose to recycle rather than to reduce my flying!  And of course at some level I do know that substituting one good behaviour for one bad isn’t sensible. Yet, I am highly motivated to receive the compensation for my face- to- face work with my clients. So I take the easy way out and rationalize that my recycling is compensating for my flying!  Is that a sensible trade-off?  Of course not! But we human beings are great at rationalizing and hiding our real motives even from ourselves.

Actual or Considered Presence of Certain People
All of us have people whose opinions are important to us.  And at times we may view their judgements to be more important than our own attitudes and values.  Are you familiar with this scenario? When I am with someone that I want to impress, I am unlikely to bring up topics with her that I know are controversial.  But I don’t stop there.  If she makes a statement of opinion that is completely opposite to my own, and I want her to think highly of me, I may be unlikely to counter with my own differing opinion.  Admit it.  We all do it from time to time.

So let’s go back to our air travel example.  If my key client does not understand nor care about the issues pertaining to the environment, I may readily comply with their request to fly to their site.  My need for approval from my client could override my values. On the other hand, if my client is a champion of sustainability, I may jump on opportunities to find alternatives that they too will value.

Normative Prescriptions
Many of us are rooted in cultures that carry specific norms for “how we should do things.”  Sometimes we are so deeply embedded in these cultures that we really don’t see any alternatives.  For example, in the USA, a cultural norm is to be hard-working and self-reliant in order to be successful. Therefore we may work as many hours as it takes to advance our careers without questioning what we are giving up to do so.  And we may fail to recognize that this work ethic could differ in other cultures or that there may be circumstances in our own culture that prevent people from being self-reliant. We simply adopt this norm without questioning its validity.

Similarly, we may not question our air travel due to norms.   In my professional world the norm is to attend meetings, give presentations, and meet with others face-to-face.  All of us within this professional culture accept this norm. Therefore, I am unlikely to question whether I should get on that airplane. Instead it is a given that I will do what it takes to fulfil my professional requirements. I probably don’t even try to look for other ways to carry out my responsibilities.  Or I may believe that the only way to get ahead in my profession is to comply with these norms, even if I am aware that there are other methods of carrying out my work with less impact on the environment.

At this point you may be burying your head in your hands and feeling that there is no hope for actually bringing our behaviours into greater coherence with our attitudes and values pertaining to sustainability (or anything else for that matter). However, there are ways that we can close the gaps.

…our unconscious motives and emotions may take precedence over logic when it comes to our sustainability-related behaviours.

Note that in many of the explanations I offered for attitudinal-behavioural inconsistency, the behaviour is automatic or unconscious. We can attack this through intentional self-awareness. If we can ensure that our attitudes towards sustainability are more accessible to us, and could think through what those attitudes imply for our behaviours, we might become more conscientious in looking for ways to meet our goals and satisfy our motivations while still acting consistently. People who are self-aware and observe the cues that might be likely to unconsciously influence their behaviours are more likely to be able to bring their behaviours and attitudes into consistency.

Also, people who make verbal commitments to behave in ways that are consistent with their values are more likely to follow-through. So, if I stated today (in this blog or in meetings with clients and co-workers) that this year I would reduce my air  travel because I know that decreasing my own carbon footprint is critical, I would be more likely to look for alternatives. When we make our commitments public, we are more predisposed to act accordingly. Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous ask members to set goals and reveal them to the others for this reason.  They know that public commitments hold more sway in influencing behaviours.

Finally, we can work to influence cultural norms.  If the norms in our many cultures and subcultures clearly supported acting with sustainability in mind always, we would be more likely to reduce our own inconsistencies.

In conclusion, we individuals do have some solutions to the inconsistency dilemma.  Are we willing to apply them?

P.S. I publicly commit to reducing my air travel this year. 

Kathy MillerDr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.


  1. Amidst the complexities of the issue of inconsistent motivations and behaviours, there are also some semantics at play (in particular the differences between attitudes, beliefs and values) — but these are psychologically important semantics that I think are at the heart of the issue. Here’s my take on the difference: ATTITUDES are often inconsistent with behaviours because they’re relatively uninformed desires: they’re the way we “want” to act (“I’d like to have less of a carbon footprint”); BELIEFS are slightly more logically driven perceptions (“I should have less of a footprint, because of X, Y or Z”); while VALUES map behaviours better because they have deeper personal roots or socially structured obligations attached.

    The space between the words is, I think, where the excitement of sustainability work takes place. Begin by celebrating the fact that all three states are better than ignorance, or especially indifference, and then encourage the exploration and dialogue that moves people from attitudes, to beliefs, to more transformative values. Give people an open-hearted chance to see their gaps, humanize the fact of them, and then help them adjust the weight of their footprints.


    1. Geoff, thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree with you that the three concepts are not synonymous. I lumped them together because, unfortunately, most of the research shows that behaviors are quite often not related to any of the three. Yes, values can drive behavior but there are other factors at work as well – as with attitudes and beliefs.

      As Common Cause stated in their handbook on how we use values, “In fact, our actions can at times be fairly divergent from our dominant values.” They offer the examples of the failure of witnesses to intervene in emergencies and the fact that many who value the environment still don’t always buy organic food. For a value to guide a behavior, we must see it as relevant, it must not be in competition with other more strongly held values, and we have to perceive that we have a high level of control over the situation. If we have to overcome enormous obstacles, our behaviors are much less likely to be congruent with our values.

      It seems that the values we say influence our behavior are likely to differ substantially from what others would infer from observing our behaviors. And we are unlikely to be aware of these inconsistencies. The research says that our behavior is almost always driven by our need to protect ourselves and that we will distort reality to do so!


  2. Hi Geoff,
    Many thanks for your comments – most relevant and interesting!
    Indeed, reducing the inconsistency gap between attitudes and behavior by looking at values is where sustainability and leadership beautifully merge – at least in my opinion.


  3. I completely agree that claimed values sometimes don’t align with behaviours (both at the organizational and personal level), and maybe that’s just where our work can be most effective and engaging: helping people to see the difference between merely espoused values and actual lived values; getting them to recognize the steps that need to be taken to narrow that gap. Again, I think that if we approach the inconsistencies with excitement and curiosity, change is waiting there to happen.


  4. I had never previously considered appropriating aspects of the Weight Watchers or the AA model to change my behaviors towards a greater coherence with my sustainability values and beliefs. But the connection now appears straightforward; after all I am addicted to a high carbon footprint lifestyle concurrent with my incredible capacity for rationalization/self-justification. Therefore I will need the powers, support and perhaps even sponsoring/mentoring of others to make such changes in behavior while also publicly stating that sustainability values and behaviors are my highest priority.

    We were recently in Naples, Florida basking in the beauty and warmth of the area while escaping from the harsh Midwest USA winter. Those gulf side cottages with luxuriant landscaping looked so lovely that I began fantasizing about how we could theoretically own one. And I found (or created) plenty of rationalizations supporting such a decision including thinking of how many of our friends and family would appreciate our having this abode, assuming that we would also host them In the winter months. But from both a financial stewardship and a sustainability framework those Naples cottage rationalizations quickly dissolve. And if I could self justify the need for a home in Naples, I have plenty of other less visible and unconscious assumptions in my/our lifestyle that need review. A review that would best occur individually and in community.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s