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Is the Secret to Change All in How You Phrase It?

Every action is an opportunity to claim a positive identity.

In my last "How to Think Like a Psychologist" class this quarter, I hosted Christopher Bryan, and up-and-coming researcher at the Stanford Center on Longevity. Bryan studies how language shapes action. He's found that a simple word change can make people more likely to be the best version of themselves: helping others, conserving energy, saving money, and not cheating.

That change? Use a noun, not a verb, to describe the action. For example, "helping" becomes "helper" and "cheating" becomes "cheater." Bryan has found that just hearing an action described as a noun prompts people to think about who they are, and who they want to be -- and how everything they do says something about them.

For example, one study asked people either "How important is it for you to vote in tomorrow's election?" or "How important is it for you to be a vote in tomorrow's election?" the day before the 2008 presidential election. Those who had been given a survey that used the noun "voter" in every question were more likely to actually vote in the next day, as confirmed by official voting records.

When verbs become nouns, actions become a way to claim a positive identity. So recycling becomes not just a chore, but a way to confirm: I'm someone who cares about the planet. Exercising becomes not just one more thing you don't have time for, but an expression of your core self: I'm an exerciser. Or an athlete. Or a yogi. Or a workout warrior.

This got me thinking about New Year's Resolutions. Our resolutions typically take one of two forms: an outcome (I will lose 20 pounds; I will pay off my biggest credit card debt) or an action (I will exercise more often; I will stop after-midnight online shopping). Rarely do we say "I am this kind of person, and I'm going to show it with my actions."

Perhaps it's because we don't really believe we are that kind of person. We hope that we will become that kind of person -- someone who enjoys exercise, or knows how to manage money, or gets things done. But the truth is, we become that kind of person by doing. Action makes us who we are; if we wait to change first, we may be waiting forever.

The key to understanding Bryan's findings is to realize that people act in a certain way because they want to be a certain kind of person. They take the opportunity to act in order to strengthen that identity. This is what a good New Year's resolution is all about. It starts with our biggest motivation: what we really want, and who we want to be; it chooses an action that is consistent with that identity; and we commit to the action by adopting the identity. You become by doing.

In 2012, who will you be?

For more info about Christopher Bryan's work, visit his website.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.