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.
Most of us need some type of motivation to hit the gym on a regular basis.
New research has revealed that the best motivator to exercise harder and faster may not be an upcoming High School reunion, a pair of pants purchased in a smaller size, or that expensive personal trainer you hired.
Instead, it may be you.
You and Avatar Technology
An avatar is a computer user’s representation of his or her self online.
You may already be familiar with the concept: there are plenty of websites where digital beings direct you around the sites. There are also video games that encourage you to create a digital you to play online and interact with other gamers.
More recently, Stanford University has utilized Avatar technology for a very different and much healthier means.
Doctoral candidate Jesse Fox led a study to determine the impact that Avatars could have on the duration and intensity of one’s workouts.
To test her theories, she composed a test pool of over 80 people and separated them into 3 groups.
Avatars were developed for 2 of the 3 groups – participants submitted photos of themselves so that their Avatars looked as identical as possible.
During the tests, all groups wore virtual reality helmets. Members of the first group watched an Avatar of themselves hanging out, reading, and doing other non-physical activities.
Members of the second group watched Avatars working out, but those Avatars did not resemble the study’s participants.
The third group watched their personal identical Avatars running on treadmills.
After viewing their digital counterparts, the participants were sent home. Jesse Fox and other researchers phoned them a day later to find out the level of physical activity they had engaged in after leaving the lab.
Turns out that members of group three (the identical avatar group) worked out a full hour longer than other participants.
By now, you might be asking yourself, if the study was checking to see if Avatars help people to work out longer, why was the second group (those who had watched unfamiliar Avatars work out) not as motivated to work out as long as the third (who had seen their own Avatars running)?
The Key is Seeing Yourself in Action
Previous research in psychology, especially sports psychology, has determined that if you visualize yourself completing a task, you may be not only more eager to try the task in real life, but you may be more successful at it as well.
The same psychology is in play here, but more tangible evidence (the Avatar) takes this one step further.
Being able to see the Avatar moving may jumpstart your real self’s motivation to exercise, as you aspire to imitate your digital self.
Weirder and even more interesting, it does not take an action for the Avatar’s image to have an effect. When people watched their still, non-moving Avatars becoming thinner or heavier, they still exercised significantly more than when it was an unfamiliar Avatar.
This bolsters the weird phenomenon that is really depends on who the Avatar is that the participants are watching. If the Avatar is not you, it does not matter what it is doing. It has little effect on you.
The Brain and Self-Image
This study is interesting for a lot of reasons, but for me it is the tie in with the brain and self image that is most fascinating.
Over a year ago, I blogged about some really interesting research involving hypnosis and paralysis: http://exploringthemind.com/decisions-and-actions-who-is-in-control/.
There is 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).
Various studies have demonstrated that representations of self can guide behavior (this is part of how hypnosis works). You can see it in the brain with an fMRI.
It would be really interesting to see what would happen if they were to do brain scans of the group using Avatars, versus not using Avatars to see if this part of the brain was more activated in the Avatar group.
Obviously, there needs to be a lot more research done in this direction and I personally can’t wait. Tell me what kind of research you would like to see done using Avatar technology.