Although often discussed, there is actually very little research that has been done on the structure of self-talk and how it can motivate us…until now.
Published in the April 2010 issue of Psychological Science journal, Professor Dolores Albarracin and her team sought to find out if asking yourself (introspective talk) a question about your potential behavior would increase or decrease the likelihood of that behavior?
In simpler terms, what would work better?
- A basic affirmation like: “I will (be able to solve the task).”
- Or to frame it as a question: “Will I (be able to solve the task)?”
Before reading on, which do you think worked better?
Affirmations versus Questions – Experiment One
In the first test of two tests, 50 participants were asked to solve a series of anagram puzzles (rearranging letters within words to form new words, like when/hewn).
Before they began the puzzles, researchers directed some of the participants to tell themselves, “I will solve the anagram,” while others were told to ask themselves “Will I solve the anagram?” They were told to think of either the question or the statement for one full minute before beginning the puzzles.
The graph below shows how many anagrams were correctly answered in relation to the two different phrases, “Will I?” and “I will.”
As you can see, the non-affirmation (framed as a question) out-performed the traditional affirmation.
In fact, it increases performance by over 85%…
Quick note: there was no control group (those who did not say any sort of affirmation to themselves before beginning the task). I have no idea why they did not have a control group.
The main point is that the question group outperformed the affirmation group by over 85%.
Writing Affirmations – Experiment Two
In In the beginning of a second experiment, researchers did not tell the participants that they were going to solve a puzzle or perform any task.
This group was split into 4 smaller groups, and simply asked to write down either “Will I?” or “I Will” or “I” or “Will” on a piece of paper as many times as they could in one minute. (The researchers had told them that they were involved in a hand-writing analysis experiment).
After this was completed, without any warning, the 50 participants were then given the same anagram puzzle as in the first experiment.
Again, results showed that those who wrote “Will I?” were able to solve more anagrams correctly than those in the “I Will” group.
This test also had a control, to see if the words “I” and “Will” in a pairing or alone would change the results. Using “I” and “Will” alone acted as the control in this experiment.
The results show that not only did the pairing of words impact the test results, but the specific pairing of “Will I?” again outperformed any of the other combinations.
Why Questions Work Better than Affirmations – Intrinsic Motivation
These new findings are counter to the idea that if you tell yourself you can do something, you will be able to do it.
Even as children, we learn to project self-affirmation– just like The Little Engine Who Could story, where the Engine forced itself up a steep hill by chanting “I Think I Can” until he reached the top.
Professor Albarracin’s results suggest that the Little Engine would have had better success if it had asked itself, “Do I think I can?” on his journey instead. (Or, “Can I?” – etc).
According to these researchers, asking yourself a question (instead of forming a positive affirmation) increases your intrinsic, or inner, motivation.
To put it another way, in the form of a question, you are basically challenging yourself to complete a task. The desire to complete a challenge triggers each individual to create his or her own internal motivation.
The structure of self-talk, therefore, in the form of a question, can be enough to motivate you to action, perhaps more so than the idea of telling yourself that you can do something.
The Power of Questions
The findings of this study reveal how the structure of language can be a link between thought and action. It also demonstrates how far we are from knowing the “ultimate” self-improvement tool.
There are literally thousands of affirmation programs, CDs, books, etc… published in the world today that are only half as effective as this new structure. So we have a lot to learn!
On a personal note, for some strange reason, I am enjoying these results. It kind of reinforces the human spirit that a question is more powerful than a command.
I also am interested to see how other verbs, instead of just “will,” may impact intrinsic motivation and behaviors. What do you think?
Albarracin, Dolores, and Ibrahim Senay. “Interrogative Self-Talk and Intention: Motivation Goal-Directed Behavior through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense.” Psychological Science. April 2010. Volume 21, Number 4.
Image also from site listed above.
We all know deep down that feeling jealous isn’t pleasant. You probably know intuitively that it isn’t so good for our stress levels.
But a new study, done at The University of Delaware, shows the effects of jealousy to be far more detrimental. So detrimental that it can affect your ability to see…
The study itself is fairly complicated, so please bear with me.
The Setting: Heterosexual couples were put in the same room separated only by a curtain (so they could hear each other).
The Control: The male was given a meaningless test where he rated the attractiveness of images of landscapes – out loud.
At the same time, the female (who could hear the male answering the landscape questions) was given a project which tested her ability to spot certain targets within a range of backgrounds.
Researchers were tracking to see the female’s performance under these circumstances. They also asked the females how they felt about hearing her partner rate the landscape photos. (More on that later…)
Stage Two: A second test was conducted, only this time, the man was shown pictures of attractive women (instead of neutral landscapes) and asked to rate their looks. Remember, the female could hear what was going on.
To make it worse, the female could hear that the photos the males was evaluating were of single women who attended the same college as the couple (a total lie!).
The female had the same basic project of identifying targets on a background, but this time had to listen to her partner rate attractive females instead landscapes!
She was also asked about how she felt about this at the end of the experiment.
The idea behind the experiment was to see if “jealousy” (caused by the women hearing her partner rate attractive women) would affect her ability to spot the targets on the background, and to see if the self reporting of uneasiness correlated with any change in performance…
As you can probably guess, the female’s ability to spot the target decreased significantly when having to hear her partner rate attractive females. And, the more the female self reported uneasiness – the worse they did on the test.
A quick note, I don’t know why, but they only tested females, so there is no current way of knowing if the results are gender specific.
The idea here is really interesting, because it implies that at least one of the five senses (sight) can be drastically altered by jealousy. It would be interesting to see if other emotions had the same effect.
You might be saying to yourself, “of course, any distraction like that is going to alter performance.” And that would be a good point. They did have the control of non-emotional distraction. So this clearly shows the emotional component had the effect.
Sometimes science has to prove the obvious! This way, we can build a platform for future research.
Sometimes it is fun to guess how a particular piece of research can be generalized.
For some reason, the thought of cell phone use while driving came to mind. So aside from the obvious distraction of talking and driving, I am wondering if the emotional circumstances of the conversation (let’s say it is jealousy – giving your girlfriend the 5th degree on what she did last night with her “study partner”) could magnify the danger?
Wrapping this up, it is nice to see a study back up what every romance author has known since the beginning of time – jealousy is blinding!
This is kind of a fun one; please comment below with your thoughts.
*In case you were wondering, all of the couples in the tests were between 19-21 years old and had been together for an average of 10 months, some up to 36 months.
Most, Steven B., et all. “Blind Jealousy? Romantic Insecurity Increases Emotion-Induced Failures of Visual Perception.” Emotion. Vol. 10, no. 2: 250-262.
Science Daily Online. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100413160859
Have you ever wondered why swearing seems to be your immediate reaction to pain?
In June 2009, researchers at the Keele University in England sought to determine why the automatic response for so many people in pain is to blurt out swears.
The question at hand was, does simply expressing pain (in a shout, yelp, or cry) make you feel better, or, is it the specific words you choose to yell that helps to lessen pain? Do curse words contain a hidden power that has the ability to help decrease pain?
To answer these questions, researchers found 68 college-aged students and asked each to submerge one hand in icy water for as long as they could possibly stand it. They were trying to test if students could keep their hands submerged longer if they used curse words or non-curse words.
During the first trial, the students were permitted to swear out loud as often as they needed to see if it could lengthen the period of time that the hand could stay submerged.
During the second trial, the students submerged their other hand in the icy water and this time, they were permitted to say whatever they wanted, as long as it did not contain swearing.
(Fact – one reason behind this study was because the head researcher, Richard Stevens of Keele University, heard his wife hollering expletives when she was giving birth. When she apologized afterward, the nurses and doctors shrugged her off, insisting it happened quite often. Her husband wondered why and sought to find out.)
The *&%#ing Results
It was determined that, on average, swearing students could hold their hands in the water over 40 seconds longer than when they did not swear. (Considering the average individual could keep a hand submerged for only a couple minutes, keeping the same hand under the water for an additional 40 seconds was quite a chilling accomplishment!)
Why were the swearing students able to keep their hands in icy water longer?
Preliminary research has pointed to the amygdala, a gland that makes the heart speed up and the resistance to pain stronger, as the key. It is basically responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction, which you probably have heard of previously.
The working theory is that using actual cuss words somehow activates deep primitive negative emotions, which somehow triggers the amygdala to choose the “fight” response.
The fight response then raises your heart rate and decreases pain sensations, just like swearing after feeling pain.
More research is still needed to determine the exact reason why using actual cuss words is able to induce this response.
So, even though cursing is often thought of as reflective of poor manners, it may be that profane language has the power to decrease pain that general speech does not.
Keele University psychologist, Dr. Richard Stevens, summarized his findings and offered this sound advice after the study was over: “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”
Do you follow the doctor’s orders?
If you want to learn more about the amygdala and it’s connection to hypnosis, please check out this article: click here to read more.
NeuroReport, June 2009
Perspectives on Psychological Science, March 2009
A new study published in the Feb. 11 issue of the journal Neuron, has identified areas of the brain that, when damaged, leads to a greater sense of self-transcendence.
The higher you are on the self-transcendence scale, the more you view yourself as being an integral part of the universe as a whole… So if you rank low on this scale, it is all about YOU!
And no, the researchers didn’t damage people’s brains just to find out. They somehow got permission to do pre and post personality testing with patients who had to have surgery anyway that would cause selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions.
Does One Need Brain Damage to Gain Transcendence?
I seriously doubt it! Remember, this is normally a stable personality trait – so some people just naturally see themselves as part of a greater whole.
And some people spend years in meditation in order to move up the scale. There has been a lot of solid research behind various forms of meditation demonstrating that not only can a person move up this scale in the personality tests…
But also make significant changes to their brain’s structure. But this takes years.
One thing (among others) that is interesting here, is that we now know that by directly altering the brain’s structure through surgery, that deep personality changes can be made… and they aren’t all bad.
Better Living Through Direct Brain Alteration?
According to Dr. Salvatore M. Aglioti from Sapienza University of Rome (one of the researchers):
“If a stable personality trait like self transcendence can undergo fast changes as a consequence of brain lesions, it would indicate that at least some personality dimensions may be modified by influencing neural activity in specific areas,… Perhaps novel approaches aimed at modulating neural activity might ultimately pave the way to new treatments of personality disorders.”
Well, this seems to be opening a whole new can of worms! I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but it seems to me that down the road this could be used to literally change the personalities of those who the powerful deem as, “subversive”.
It could also turn into something like plastic surgery where people go in to get a quick, “personality adjustment”.
And of course, it could become a very valuable tool for people who are living a life of internal pain. Nothing is as simple as it seems.
I hope you found that interesting, if you want more of this type of information – let me know.
Citation: Urgesi et al., ‘The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence’, Neuron, February 2010, 65 (3), 309-319; doi:
The June 2009 issue of the Journal Neuron just published a fascinating study that could be the next step towards figuring out how hypnosis actually works in the brain.
As you probably know, I am big into brain science – and especially studies employing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). What I like about fMRI is that it provides a window into the brain; allowing scientists to find out what is really going on as opposed to solely relying on reporting or behavioral assessments.
I wish they had this technology when I was in graduate school in the mid 90’s – I never would have left.
Anyway, let’s take you through the experiment. I think you will find this interesting and maybe even helpful in some strange way.
Researchers recruited 18 healthy volunteers, and asked them to perform a “go-no go” task while their brains were being watched via fMRI.
The participants were first required to fixate on a cross which was shown for half a second. This was followed by a grayscale picture of either a left or a right hand; this was a cue shown to indicate which hand was at play.
After an interval of 1-5 seconds, the hand changed color.
If it turned green, they had to respond, as quickly as possible, by pressing a button with the corresponding hand.
If it turned red, they were to withhold the prepared movement and do nothing.
Here is the Fun Part!
Twelve of the participants played the game both under hypnosis (and told that their left hand was paralyzed), or in a normal state.
6 of the participants performed the task while feigning paralysis (acting “as if” they were unable to move the fingers of the left hand).
Both the control group (the group that feigned paralysis and the hypnosis group were able to resist pushing the button with the left hand – but the brain scans showed that the mechanisms involved were completely different!
This alone blows away the hypothesis that there is no difference between hypnosis and just acting. The evidence against this theory is more than compelling, but it is nice to see this happening in the brain itself.
More about The Test (and why science is so cool)
There were two tests going on here.
First, they were testing how the hypnosis paralysis group suppressed the movement:
It either suppressed the movement in the preparatory level (by not “gearing up” the left hand when the grey left was displayed).
It suppressed the movement after the preparatory level (meaning the brain recognized the left hand and it geared up, but just didn’t allow the left hand to move.
Second (and what is really interesting to me)
By comparing the brain activity measured during hypnosis and in the feigned paralysis group, they could see whether the mechanisms in the brain were similar.
Test One Results – It is Not about the Planning
The results of the first test were pretty interesting. It turns out that when the hypnosis group was shown the grey left hand, that there was in fact brain activity in the right motor cortex which is associated with planning to execute a necessary command on the left side of your body.
In fact in both the hypnosis group and the feigned paralysis group, both group’s brains planned and/or “got ready” to move the left hand. This was true of all the subjects regardless of whether they were not hypnotized or just pretending.
So the answer to the first test is that the preparatory part of the brain is NOT blocked, it happens after preparation.
Test Two Results: Why Hypnosis is not like Pretending
The next step was examining the activity of the motor cortex at the time of actual hand movement execution.
At the time when the movement should be executed, the normal group again showed activity in the right motor cortex, but the hypnotized group did not (kind of expected since they did not move their left paralyzed hand).
However, the hypnotized group did show increased activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortexes (these are involved in executive control and attention). More relevant, there was also increased activity in a part of the brain called the precuneus.
The precuneus is involved in mental imagery and especially in making representations of self (it is heavily involved in creating your self-image).
In the feigning or “pretending” group, these areas of the brain did not experience more activity. Instead, there was increased activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus, which is involved in motor inhibition. (The hypnosis group did NOT experience increased activity in this area).
So What Does this Mean?
Sorry for all the brain talk (don’t worry; I have to refer to charts as well). And of course it is not wise to jump to conclusions. But, this not only shows a difference between pretending and hypnosis – it indicates that hypnosis uses internal representations and self imagery to take control of your behaviors – while “pretending” relies on will power.
Instructions given under hypnosis seem have the ability to override habitual action, without conscious awareness. And it seems to do so by working at the level of self image. This is why it is such a powerful tool for self-change.
The author of the study, Dr. Yann Cojan, said it differently, “These results suggest that hypnosis may enhance self-monitoring processes to allow internal representations generated by the suggestion to guide behavior but does not act through direct motor inhibition,” says Dr. Cojan.
Here is my two cents. Having been “hypnotized” more times than I can count, and talking to our customer base (full disclosure – my company sells hypnosis CDs), the results make sense.
When folks use hypnosis for weight loss, for example, they report that when they go to the fridge to get a snack – it is almost as if something pulls them away from this action. It seems like as the self image is built, it gets in the way of behaviors that were causing you trouble. And this is without a person having to think about it, or use will power.
Anyway, there is still a lot to learn!
I am very interested in what you think about this article, and would love to start a good conversation about brain science and behavior in general.
Please comment and sign up for Intense Debates. I promise to answer any questions on the blog. My answers are usually replies to specific posts.
Just click the blue “reply” by any comment to see my response.
The Brain under Self-Control: Modulation of Inhibitory and Monitoring Cortical Networks during Hypnotic Paralysis
Neuron, Volume 62, Issue 6, 25 June 2009, Pages 862-875
Yann Cojan, Lakshmi Waber, Sophie Schwartz, Laurent Rossier, Alain Forster and Patrik Vuilleumier