I am often asked by people wanting to apply Behaviour Change programs how they can more effectively and efficiently gather commitments. Below I reveal my approach, refined based on more than 25 years of Behaviour Change programs.

Why are commitments important?

Behavioural psychologists recognize that what people intend to do and what they actually do can be two different things. Although someone may intend to perform an action, it does not mean that they will. Behavioural psychologists call the phenomenon the intention-action gap (https://behavioralscientist NULL.org/saving-lives-by-closing-the-intention-action-gap/).

An example of the intention-action gap can be seen in blood donation. Surveys find that almost everyone is supportive of blood donation and are very aware of the benefits of giving blood. They have the knowledge and attitude that they should give blood. However, typically only three or 4% of a population actually donate blood. There is a gap between what they intend to do and what they actually do. (Some people cannot give blood for various reasons, including ineligibility).

Our challenge as agents of behaviour change is to help people bridge that gap so that they actually do what they intend to do. One powerful tool that we can use is commitment.

Three types of commitments

There are three types of commitment:

  • verbal
  • written
  • public

Verbal commitments can be secured by asking somebody “will you recycle your pop bottles?” If they say yes, they have made a verbal pledge to you and are more likely to recycle them than if they had not made a commitment.

Photo of man giving thumbs-up to show his pledge to Behaviour Change.
Photo by Aziz Acharki.
Downloaded from unsplash.com

Written pledges have proven to be more effective than verbal in compelling people to perform the desired action.

Public commitments have proven to be even more effective than written ones. When someone makes a commitment publicly, they are more likely to take the action, possibly because they feel some peer pressure to do so.

We should always seek stronger commitments. We can do so by climbing the Ladder of Commitment.

Climbing the Ladder of Commitment

In our projects, we climb the Ladder of Commitment in the following manner.

First, while talking to someone about the subject at hand, like recycling, we will ask “Is there anything preventing you from recycling?” If someone offers a reason why they will not (maybe they don’t know what to recycle or don’t have a container for their recyclables), that is a barrier and we seek to remove that barrier for them. When there are no more barriers, then we ask can we count on you to recycle then? Without any reason not to recycle, they are likely to say yes. They have now made a verbal pledge.

Graphic showing how to get commitment to Behaviour Change.

Do you know when the best time to ask for a written commitment is? It is just after someone has made a verbal pledge. What we typically do is pull out a clipboard with a piece of paper and a pen and ask the person to add their name to the list of people who have already made a commitment to recycling. By adding their name to the list, the subject has now made a written pledge and is more likely to actually recycle.

The best time to ask for a public commitment is right after a person has made a written commitment. So while the person is adding their name to the list, we will say “if you check that little box right beside your name, you are giving us permission to publish your name as someone who recycles. That will help us show others that people are recycling around them, and they should recycle too. Will you help us to get other people to recycle?” If they check the box, they have made a public commitment and are even more likely to recycle. And if they don’t, you still have the written pledge.

Not everyone will make a commitment, and even someone who makes a verbal pledge, may not wish to make a written or public one. That’s OK. But you want to try to collect as many commitments as possible, and as many of the stronger types as you can.

Key Takeaways

The following are the key points made above:

  • Always, always, always ask for commitments. You won’t get any unless you ask.
  • Once you have a verbal pledge, try to get a written commitment and a public commitment.
  • Not everyone will make a commitment. When someone refuses to commit, try to get one from the next person.