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The Surprising Trick to Helping Anyone Change

New research on using cognitive dissonance to your benefit.

Source: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

Behavior change can be hard. Although there are lots of theories about what motivates people to create long-lasting change, new research shows the secret might be simpler than you think.

The Question-Behavior Effect

A new study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, concluded that asking the right question is the key to behavior change. In what they coined the “question-behavior effect,” researchers found that asking a question about future behavior speeds up an individual’s readiness for change.

For example, rather than telling someone—or yourself—that it’s important to invest in a retirement fund, ask, “Are you going to set aside money for retirement?” That question offers a gentle reminder that investing is important and it causes some slight discomfort to someone who isn’t saving any money.

That discomfort is what motivates people to change. When an individual isn’t exhibiting a healthy behavior, the question serves as a reminder of their choices.

Researchers found that such questioning effectively produces consistent and significant change across a wide variety of behaviors. Direct questions influenced people to cheat less and exercise, volunteer, and recycle more.

The key is to ask a question that forces people to choose a definitive yes or no answer. Interestingly, researchers found the question-behavior effect was most effective when the questions were delivered via a computer or a paper-and-pencil survey.

Why It Works

There are several theories about why the question-behavior effect works, but it most likely has to do with cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is when your ideal self doesn’t match up with your real self.
While you may want to be a healthy person, for example, your behavior may not be in line with what a fit, healthy person does. So when someone asks if you are going to exercise regularly, saying no would cause you a lot of discomfort. To ease your discomfort, then, you’re likely to say yes. And then, your prediction that you’re going to exercise can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Answering a yes or no question—especially on a computer or via pen and paper—doesn’t allow for clarification. You may want to explain, “I plan to start exercising next month,” or, “I will go to the gym once my schedule allows,” but a yes-or-no question doesn’t give any wiggle room: You need to commit one way or the other.

How It Can Be Used

The question-behavior effect could be useful in a lot of different circumstances:

  • Use it on yourself.

    Ask yourself a clear yes-or-no question about an area where you’re struggling to stay motivated. You might find that forcing yourself to give a yes or no answer will give you an extra boost in motivation.

  • Influence someone else.

    If your employees have started showing up late for work, send out an email survey that asks, “Are you going to start showing up for work on time?” Or, ask your spouse, “Are you going to do several hours of work at home every single night?” Raising someone else’s awareness of their behavior with gentle confrontation can lead to behavior change.

  • Companies can use it in marketing.

    Advertisements that ask questions like, “Will this be the year you finally reward yourself for your hard work?” may convince people to buy their products.

  • Public service campaigns.

    Whether a person is asked, “Are you going to vote this year?” or, “Are you going to get your flu vaccine?” questions can cause someone to consider their values head-on. Rather than rehash the benefits or the dangers—which most people already know—ask a question that will help people examine their choices.

The next time you’re tempted to make excuses for your behavior or lecture someone else about what they should do differently, try asking a yes or no question. You might find it’s the simplest, yet most effective way to elicit long-lasting behavior change.

Want to learn how to give up the bad habits that rob you of mental strength? Pick up a copy of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.

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