Polly Campbell

Polly Campbell

Imperfect Spirituality

Will You...?

Posing a question rather than giving an order impacts behavior in a big way.

Posted Jan 12, 2016

Forty-degree drizzle, gray skies, and a drumming headache. Excuses sure, but all solid enough to keep me from going to the gym.

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Source: freeimages.com

Then my husband goes and asks: ““Will you workout today?”

No. Nope. Definitely not. Too tired. Too cold. Headache. Blah. Blah. Blah.

But the question stuck with me even as I headed back to the keyboard. Even as I rumbled through the deadline. Even as I changed into my sweats and sneakers. The question stayed with me even as I headed out to exercise.

I went from no motivation to a 30-minute interval exercise.

Not exactly sure why, but the minute my husband posed the question, I started thinking about my workout in a new way.

Research shows that language and how we use it often piques and tweaks our motivation.

In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology researchers found that asking rather than telling influences behavior in a powerful way.

They call it the question-behavior effect and say that simply asking about a behavior will increase the likelihood of it.

Could it be that effective? Could my husband’s benign inquiry really be the impetus behind my decision to exercise?  I still didn’t feel like working out, but his question caused me to become a little introspective. It reminded me of the health benefits of exercise and my commitment to a healthier lifestyle.

And, when I repeated aloud to him, all the reasons I wasn’t going, the excuses sounded so, well, wimpy and excusey. Just so hollow. I didn’t like the sound of it.

Now, if my husband had said “You should workout today” that would not have gone well. Don’t be telling me what to do. But, when he asked if I was going to the gym, he didn’t care one way or the other, and the question had a surprising impact.

Asked and Answered

Eric Spangenberg, the lead researcher from the University of California, Irvine who looked at the question-behavior effect, said it is most powerful when the questions encourage behavior that is associated with positive social norms such as healthier eating or volunteering. But, the effect  is not as strong when people are already routinely performing the behavior.

After reading this study, I immediately went in to mom mode looking at this approach as a way of encouraging our daughter to make smart choices:

“Will you eat the carrot sticks at lunch?

“Will you work hard in school?”

Or when she’s older, perhaps I’ll ask, “Will you drink at the party?” Instead, of the order “don’t drink at the party.”

Or perhaps I’ll send her an e-mail. The question-behavior effect appears to be the strongest when the questions are administered via a computer or a survey on paper and the question calls for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, according to the research.

But, when asking about excessive shopping or drinking or other weaknesses, beware. The inquiry may just lead to more of the undesirable behavior, according to the results of the study.

The Words We Choose

Other research shows that the words we use also have a significant impact on whether we'll achieve our goals. 

“The phrase ‘I don’t’ tends to motivate people to continue on, leading to greater success. The  phrase “I can’t’  catches people up and makes it more likely that they'll deviate from their path.

If you want to lose weight, try it in terms of your diet. “I don’t eat dessert,” feels like a choice. It feels empowering. “I can’t eat dessert just sounds punitive and makes me want that brownie all the more.

Now the question is, will you use these key phrases and words to increase motivation and get ahead?

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