Ask, Don’t Tell: The Question-Behavior Effect

For lasting success in life, you need to make sure you’re asking yourself the right questions.

How many times have you said, “I’ll eat more vegetables on Monday,” or “I’ll go to the gym five times next week” only to fall short your plan? These statements are usually backed by well-meaning intentions, but sometimes good intentions aren’t enough to create meaningful change.

What if you could give yourself an edge to succeed just by rearranging a few words when you talk to yourself?

The Question-Behavior Effect

That’s what a team of scientists recently discovered by analyzing more than 100 studies spanning forty years of research on the “question-behavior effect.” The phenomenon shows that people asking about doing a certain behavior influences whether or not they do it in the future.

Consider these two statements:

  • “I will eat vegetables today.”
  • “Will I eat vegetables today?”

Which one has more impact on whether or not you will eat vegetables that day? If you chose option two, you’re correct.

With the question-behavior effect, asking instead of telling causes a psychological response that can influence your behavior. Asking not only reminds you that eating vegetables is good for your health, but it can make you feel uncomfortable if you skip your daily dose of plant-based vitamins. As a result, you become more motivated to eat your greens to alleviate those feelings of discomfort.

The study also suggests that turning a statement into a question can greatly influence behavior for more than six months after the original question was asked.

Your Words Have Impact

Word choice is an important part of constructing questions that impact behavior. When I was in third grade I had a teacher who, when asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?” by a student, would reply, “I don’t know, can you?” Her grammar-police answer was snarky and annoying, but it was effective.

Starting a question with “can” or “could” implies that the question is about ability rather than action. “Would” is a worse choice because it’s conditional and implies possibility more than probability. When you start a question with “will,” you tend to be more successful because the word implies ownership and action.

This technique can be used to influence many areas of your life, not just nutrition or fitness. When you make the effort to re-train your vocabulary, you empower yourself to take control of the actions that bring you closer to your goals.

Will you transform your internal dialogue?

Headline photo courtesy of Mohamed Ashour.

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