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.