We like to be in control of our own lives, and some of us have an automatic rebellious streak when we’re told what to do. We’re less likely to do a task if we’re ordered to do it than if we make the choice of our own volition. It seems that this effect is so strong that it even happens when the people giving the orders are… us.
In a set of three experiments, Ibrahim Senay from the University of Illinois has shown that people do better at a simple task if ask themselves whether they’ll do it than if they simply tell themselves to do so. Even a simple reversal of words – “Will I” compared to “I will” – can boost motivation and performance.
Therapists and managers alike are taught to ask people open questions that prompt them to think about problems for themselves, rather than having solutions imposed upon them. Senay’s work suggests that this approach would work even if we’re counselling or managing ourselves. When we question ourselves about our deeds and choices, we’re more likely to consider our motivations for doing something and feel like we’re in control of our actions. The effect is small but significant.
To begin with, Senay asked 53 psychology students to solve an anagram task, rearranging the letters of ten words into ten new ones. Before they started, they had to spend a minute thinking about either whether they would work on the task or simply that they would so do. The first group ended up with significantly higher scores than the second.
For his next experiment, Senay duplicated the same effect without any explicit instructions. Under the guise of a handwriting study, he asked 50 students to practice writing the words “I will”, “Will I”, “I”, or “Will”. After 20 repetitions, they were given some anagrams to do. The students who wrote “Will I” solved twice as many as those in the other groups. None of them guessed the true purpose of the experiment.
Finally, Senay asked 56 students to once again write 20 lines of either “I will” or “Will I”. Afterwards, they had to rate their intentions to start exercising regularly or continue doing so. They also had to rate 12 reasons for exercising according to their relevance to them, from internal motivators like taking responsibility for their health to external motivators like feeling guilty or ashamed of being idle. As before, the simple word swap had a significant effect. The recruits who wrote “Will I” were more likely to want to exercise, and their extra impetus was driven by a boost of self-motivation rather than a stronger pull from outside influences.
This isn’t the only study to show that subtle grammatical shifts can sway our intentions and behaviour. Just last year, William Hart and Dolores Albarracın (who also worked on Senay’s study) showed that people are more likely to repeat their actions if they describe things they did in the imperfect tense (“I was solving anagrams”) than the perfect tense (“I solved anagrams”). The latter construction firmly suggests that something was completed, while the former has more of an ongoing vibe.
This area is ripe for more investigation. Next, Senay wants to see if other verbs, like can, should or would, can affect our behaviour in a similar way. He’s also interested in whether speaking in an active or passive voice matters – the answers to that question should be of interest to all scientists and science writers, especially in light of this excellent Nature piece on whether a constant use of the passive voice could be young harming scientists.
For now, Senay’s work is a testament not just to the subtle power of grammar, but to the value of introspection and the simple act of asking yourself questions.
More psychological mindplay:
- Subliminal flag shifts political views and voting choices
- Quicker feedback for better performance
- Becoming better mind-readers – to work out how other people see you, use the right lens
- How objectification silences women – the male glance as a psychological muzzle
- In a pandemic climate, public sneezing increases fears of unrelated risks
Random picks from the archive:
- Pain in the eye of the beholder
- Language evolution witnessed in lab experiments
- Icebergs are hotspots for life