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.
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: