Where There's An "I Will" There's a Way

Subtleties in the way we speak to ourselves change motivation and happiness

Posted Jan 14, 2013

I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if we could hear the thoughts that exist inside other people’s heads. On Arrested Development, George Michael’s character regularly encourages himself to act cooler by saying things like, “Come on George Michael, act cooler!”. My guess is that most other people, however, have some sort of running internal dialogue that ranges from the banal (“don’t forget to pick up milk”) to the racy (I’m not going to put an example here). Presumably, we have these private conversations with ourselves to motivate us to do better, feel happier, and achieve the things we set out to do. But, does self-talk actually help people accomplish goals or even change they way that they feel about life?

Some recent work has looked into these questions and has focused on the distinction between using different forms of speech: the interrogative versus the declarative and the perfective versus the imperfective. Before you click to another more interesting article, and in case you didn’t have my excellent 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Peattie teach you the difference between these various forms of speaking, here it is. The interrogative versus declarative distinction can concern future actions: “Will I continue with my new year’s diet?” is an example of the interrogative form while “I will continue with my new year’s diet” is an example of the declarative form. Imperfective versus perfective aspects of speech, however, have more to do with past actions: the imperfective implies something that is ongoing (“I was dieting”), and the perfective suggests an action that has been completed (“I dieted”).

Although these differences are admittedly quite subtle, small changes in language can actually have an effect on motivation and behavior. In one study, Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracin, and Kenji Noguchi had college undergraduates complete an anagram task. If you were in the experiment, you would see a list of ten words (e.g., when, cause, and tea) and your job would be to create new words from the letters in each of these words (e.g., hewn, sauce, and eat). One group of students was told that they needed to first spend a minute thinking about whether they would work on the anagrams and another group was told that they would work on the anagrams. Thinking about whether they would do the anagrams (the interrogative tense) led participants to perform surprisingly better than when being merely told to think about the fact that they would work on the anagrams (the declarative tense).

In a similar follow-up study, Senay and colleagues got the students into the interrogative or declarative mindset by telling them that they were interested in handwriting practices, and asked the students to write either the words “Will I” or “I will” 20 times. Again, those in the interrogative condition (the ones who wrote “Will I”) performed better on the anagram task than those in the declarative condition (the ones who wrote “I will”). You might think that stating that you would complete a task would be more effective than asking whether you will complete a task. After all, a declarative statement simply seems more powerful.

But the reason the interrogative form actually leads to enhanced behavior is because it changes the way that a given action is represented in one’s mind. If we think about past actions and say, “I solved anagrams,” this suggests that we’ve already finished our anagram task. The statement “I was solving anagrams,” on the other hand, suggests that this is an action that is potentially ongoing, and there’s a chance that we might be solving anagrams in the future.

There’s also another reason why the interrogative form may win out. If my wife asks me whether I’ll take out the trash, such a statement gives me some autonomy to say no to her request, and allows me to feel as if I can have my own internal motivation to either take out the trash or not (that is, it’s up to me whether I will say no or yes – but in reality I’m wise enough to know that this is something I shouldn’t say no to). But, if she were to instead say to me “take out the trash,” (the declarative form) then I wouldn’t have very much freedom. So, the interrogative form of a question might actually increase internal motivation to carry out a task. Indeed, Senay and colleagues conducted another study where they asked participants how much they intended to either “start exercising regularly” (interrogative) or “continue to do so” (declarative). Participants responded on a scale that ranged from “not at all” to “very much” and then rated how much each of 12 reasons for exercising applied to them. In line with the earlier results, participants in the interrogative condition stated a higher intention to exercise, but most important, the language prime also led to a greater sense of internal motivation: those in the interrogative condition were more likely to agree with sentences like “I want to exercise because I feel that I want to take responsibility for my own health.”

These little differences in language can also impact mood. William Hart, for example, recently had research subjects experience either a positive or negative event in the lab. Participants in the positive event condition had to solve 12 easy anagrams (for example, they had to unscramble “LGRAE” into “LARGE”). Those in the negative event condition, by contrast, were given 6 difficult or even unsolvable anagrams (“ACELO” – don’t try it, it’s unsolvable). Some participants were then asked to describe their experience using the perfective and were prompted by sentences like “What happened?” and “What did you feel?” while other participants were asked to describe their experience using the imperfective (“What was happening?” and “What were you feeling?”). The participants who wrote about the unpleasant event in the imperfective felt worse than those who wrote about it in the perfective, and likewise the group of people who wrote about the positive anagram task in the imperfective actually felt better than the group who wrote about it in the perfective. Put simply, when thinking about a happy occurrence, asking yourself “what was I doing?” may lead to a greater boost in mood than asking yourself “what did I do?”. Based on the earlier anagram study, we might expect that the reason why the imperfective aspect would intensify moods is because it would lead to a feeling that the emotional experience was ongoing. In a follow-up study, that’s exactly what happened. Hart found that participants who had used the imperfective tense were more likely to feel like they were “re-experiencing the event” compared to participants in the perfective tense condition.

It may be interesting to examine whether these minute language differences can be therapeutically effective. Although we don’t yet know the extent to which people use these different language forms naturally when they engage in internal conversations, it’s possible that people who regularly use the imperfective aspect when thinking back on happy events are happier people. Similarly, recalling past negative events using the perfective aspect might help people lessen the negativity of those events. These findings also suggest, preliminarily, that very subtle changes in language could alter public behavior for the better. Whether “Will you recycle?” signs could actually be more effective than “Please recycle” signs is unknown, but it’s certainly a testable question. Of course, it’s also an open question whether these language forms will affect spousal interactions (“will you make me dinner?” verus “make me dinner”) but it’s not one I’m willing to submit to a rigorous empirical test.