Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

How do you talk yourself into something?

What should you tell yourself to get motivated to act?

Motivaitonal SpeakerA few months ago, we went on a cruise. We had to leave the house early on a weekend morning to drive to the port city of Galveston. The kids, who often need to be pulled out of bed with a crane on weekends were awake early, showered, and ready to go. The opportunity to go on a cruise was motivating for them all by itself.

Unfortunately, many things in life are not like a cruise. If you need to do some work in your yard, you may need to work to get yourself started on the task. If you want to start an exercise program, you may need to spend some time convincing yourself to do it. In these cases, the motivation has to come from you rather than from the task itself.

So, how do you talk yourself into doing something that isn't intrinsically motivating?

A paper by Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracin, and Kenji Noguchi in the April, 2010 issue of Psychological Science looks at two ways of talking to yourself. Imagine that you want to start an exercise program. One way that you could do this would be to ask yourself a question about the future. You could say, "Will I start an exercise program?" Another possibility is that you could state your intention forcefully. "I will start an exercise program." Which of these ways of talking to yourself is best?

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

In one study, people started off doing what they were told was a test of handwriting ability. They wrote the words "I will," Will I," "I," or "Will" 20 times on a sheet of paper. After that, they were asked to solve a number of difficult anagrams in which they had to unscramble letters to form words. On average, the people who wrote "Will I" solved about twice as many anagrams overall as any of the other groups. That is, asking yourself a question (Will I) led to better performance than telling yourself something (I will).

Starting LineIn another study, people did this same handwriting test (using only the phrases "I will" or "Will I"). Later, they were asked how likely they were to start exercising (or to continue exercising if they already did). Then, they were asked a series of questions to find out whether they were interested in exercising because they found exercise to be important or because they were worried about feeling guilty or ashamed if they did not exercise.

Similar to the study I just described, people who wrote "Will I" said they were more likely to exercise than people who wrote "I will." There was an interesting reason for this difference. The people who wrote "Will I" were more likely to view exercise as something that was important. The people who wrote "I will" tended to think that they should exercise because otherwise other people might think badly about them.

These results are interesting and a little surprising. Most of the time, we think that the best way to motivate ourselves is to state our intentions forcefully. These results suggest that we shouldn't be so forceful. Instead, we should ask ourselves a question about the future.

It seems that when we talk to ourselves or others forcefully about the future, we create an expectation that we now feel that we have to live up to. If we fail to live up to our expectations, then we will feel guilty. So, the forceful "I will" statement motivates use out of guilt. When we ask ourselves a question about the future, "Will I," then the activity itself becomes the focus. As we commit to this future activity, it becomes intrinsically interesting, and so we are more likely to want to do it.

So...Will you achieve your goals?

Follow me on Twitter.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

more...

Subscribe to Ulterior Motives

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?