The ‘say-do gap’ is a pretty complex phenomenon, yet it’s something we can all relate to. 

We claim we’ll prioritise our fitness after Christmas – yet come to the end of January, it feels like too much effort, and our good intentions come to nothing.  Maybe we claim that shopping locally is our top priority – and how fond we are of our high streets.  But when time is short, and we’re feeling the pinch, we fall back on the supermarkets or Amazon. 

This disparity between what we say and what we actually do is the ‘say-do gap’.  It’s also referred to as the ‘intention-action gap’ and is a much talked about phrase in the fascinating world of Behavioural Economics. 

It’s the void between our intentions and our actions, and for researchers who are aware of its implications, it can be a bit of an issue.


Why is the ‘say-do gap’ a problem?

When it comes to consumer research, the ‘say-do gap’ can often reveal misleading results – particularly when respondents exaggerate or underestimate their priorities, preferences or intentions. 

For businesses and brands, this confusing trait of human behaviour leads to contradictions, inaccurate reflections of emerging trends, consumer priorities and market demand – and challenges in forecasting and product development. 

If you then apply this same apathy to act on our intentions to wider global issues, like climate change, you start to see the impact that the gap can have.

The ‘say-do gap’ is something that we, as researchers, can work to mitigate – but it also provides key opportunities for brands.

What causes the gap?

I like to think of the gap as a range of obstacles and barriers that consumers may experience.  Some are emotional – others are psychological or practical:

Some may want to portray themselves in a positive light – so answer questions accordingly. Our own research into online dating is a great example of this – it’s quite common for men to exaggerate the number of relationships they’ve had and their sexual prowess.

Others may hide their true habits because they feel a little inhibited or embarrassed.  We see this a lot when consumers discuss their healthy/unhealthy eating habits, alcohol consumption or clothing size.

Some might simply lack the time, energy or money to actually carry out their intentions. For example, they might have every intention of cooking their meals from scratch, but the pressure of work and family life makes ready meals and takeaways a more appealing option.

Some may lack the relevant information.  They’ve heard everyone talking about Smart Meters and feel like they should get one – but they’re not really sure how it all works or what the benefits are.

Others can lack the confidence to deviate from their norm.  We see this in so many areas, from consumers’ reluctance to switch from familiar brands to their hesitancy to change their allegiances on polling day.

Some may struggle to recall/predict their behaviour when prompted – after all, how easily can you remember how many glasses of wine or beer you had over the past month?


And others may overthink the question and place more focus on the subject than they otherwise would.  This is often the case with questions about sustainability.  The more consumers think about it, the more they claim it’s a priority in their buying behaviour and decision-making – even though their behaviour often suggests otherwise.

The problem is, these barriers can all inhibit accurate responses – and consumers’ ability to follow through on their intentions or priorities.

What can we do to mitigate the ‘say-do gap’?

Measuring the gap can certainly go some way to helping brands understand the scale of the disparity.  They can compare intention to buy with sales figures (or the intention to change behaviour with real outcomes).  It’s an interesting area to explore, and it can offer some really valuable insight.

But just as importantly, we can minimise the ‘say-do gap’ at the research design stage – reducing overclaiming and underclaiming to reveal a much more accurate picture:

Capturing respondents’ actions (before their attitudes) means we can ground consumers in their behaviour first – before they state their perceived habits, priorities or preferences.
Where possible, look for physical evidence to support their claims.  This might mean asking shoppers for receipts, asking respondents to take photos of their homes or possessions, or asking if we can explore their social media accounts.  It all adds deeper, richer insight that allows us to review their actual behaviour.
If you don’t have the opportunity to capture personal evidence, review published market data – it can provide some great context to what your customers are actually doing.
Try to disguise the purpose of any research if you think there’s likely to be a ‘say-do gap’.  By not signalling our focus to respondents, they aren’t then primed to follow a popular opinion – or say what they think might be expected.  We often find that respondents exaggerate how frequently they use a client’s brand (or their feelings towards that brand) if they know who the client is.  It’s one reason why we often advocate using an independent research agency – and ensure that surveys are unbranded.
Online research can also provide more accurate insights than telephone or face-to-face research.  It removes the interviewer from the equation – respondents feel less need to impress or exaggerate their views and behaviours. Their responses are a truer reflection of what they really think and feel.

But the ‘say-do gap’ can provide opportunities for brands

It’s impossible to close the ‘say-do gap’ entirely. 

But acknowledging that it exists, understanding its scale and taking steps to mitigate it can reveal a fascinating insight into human behaviour.   

As consumers increasingly look for convenience (link to brand growth study), anything that eases their journey from intention to action can help to close the gap.  It’s about identifying and truly understanding which barriers are stifling your consumers so you can begin to remove them with solutions (be that time-saving benefits, accessibility of information, ease of the process, reassurance or financial incentives). 

For me, the ‘say-do gap’ is a phenomenon that brands should really embrace.  Be open to it.  Explore it.  It’s an opportunity to dig a little deeper and really get to grips with what makes your customers tick.  The result?  You might just unlock a previously inhibited target market.

Intrigued?  If you’re open to the ‘say-do gap’ and want to explore what it means for your market or brand, come and talk to us at Vision One. As well as being a friendly bunch, we’re also one of the UK’s leading global consumer insight specialists – and pioneers in our field.

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