Questions Not Answers Improve Motivation

In the recent research report, Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense, psychologists discovered that the linguistic form of your internal dialogue impacts your external performance. In fact, there is a significant difference in performance depending on whether you are using declarative self-talk (I will do 250 sit-ups!) or interrogative self-talk (Will I do 250 sit-ups?).

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Why Form Matters

Declarative statements tend to be linked to external motivation.  External motivation takes the form of the carrot or the stick. For example, motivating employees by promising a bonus for finishing a project early is using the carrot.  Telling them that if the project isn’t finished on time, they will be fired is using the stick. 

On the other hand, the authors report that previous research has shown:

(1) Open ended questions tend to generate thoughts about accomplishing a goal, without accompanying feelings of these thoughts being imposed by someone else (Sheldon, Williams, & Joiner, 2003). (2) Rhetorical questions within a strong message increase the perception of the message source as less pressuring and therefore less threatening to the autonomy of the message recipient (Burnkrant & Howard, 1984). (3) The question form is universally perceived to be more respectful of the autonomy of the person addressed (Pass the salt. vs Can you pass the salt?) (Hotgraves & Yang, 1990).

Intrinsic motivation vs. external motivation

The results of this study, demonstrate that the positive aspects of the interrogative form carry over to self-talk. One possible reason for this result is that using the interrogative form encourages intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is evident when people engage in an activity for its own sake, without some obvious external incentive present. Intrinsic motivation facilitates intention, and intention leads to external performance of goal directed behavior.

External motivation creates weak or limited intent. Coach John Wooden, described the weakness of external motivation as similar to the motivation created by a prison guard. Like a guard watching over a chain gang, you can force people to just do it, but as soon as you turn your back, they are running away from you.  There is no sustained intention to reach the external goal.

By using the declarative form, our self-talk mimics the prison guard, forcing us to behave a certain way for a little while, but as soon as an excuse presents itself, we are off and running.  On the other hand, this study finds that if, rather than telling yourself to do something, you ask yourself: Will I do it?, the scale tips away from external motivation and toward internal motivation.

For more on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation see: (1) Jeff Monday’s 4m 56s video: Behavioral Economics of Intrinsic Motivation Remastered. (2) Dan Pink’s 18m 37s TED talk: The Surprising Science of Motivation


It’s In The Details

I suspect that there are at least two additional reasons why the interrogative form is more effective than the declarative.  Using the declarative pretty much ends the conversation, whereas asking a question invites follow-on questions.  Note, follow-on questions are what makes the Socratic method an effective tool for teaching critical thinking skills, as follow-on questions lead students to explore the details of an issue and to consider exceptions to general rules.

If I ask myself a simple question: Will I stick to my schedule today?, I naturally progress to questions like: How will I organize my day? Will I be disciplined in starting and ending projects?  If I get off schedule, will I make the effort to get back on schedule? Now, I’m putting my mind to good use, as these new questions, focus on the small things necessary for accomplishing the big thing and I consider how to handle exceptions like getting off schedule.

Through the use of follow-on questions, the details and corresponding action steps come into focus.  Once the details and action steps are laid out, forming the intent necessary to complete an initial small step is less difficult than forming the intent to accomplish an entire, potentially overwhelming, project.  This is the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step concept.

Meanwhile, getting off schedule is treated as an exception to be managed, rather than as failure. Thus, switching to the interrogative leads to: (1) focusing on the detailed action steps necessary for consistent performance (which could help facilitate intent) and (2) acknowledges exceptions to perfect performance (which leads to considering ways to manage them).

Verbs for thought

Having discovered a significant effect from changing self-talk from the declarative to the interrogative, the authors of the report wonder what effects using different verbs may have. They list can, should, and would as verbs worth exploring.  Of the three verbs suggested, should jumps out as an important question to ask.  I can’t help but wonder if introspective talk using should leads to improvements in ethical decision making.

Will I lose 5 Pounds Before Summer?

After reading this post, will you use that voice in your head more effectively?  All you have to do is make one simple change.  Rather than engaging in self-talk that tells you what to do, ask yourself: Will you do it? Will I lose five pounds before summer? Will I stick to my workout schedule?  Will I spend more time with friends and family? Will I get organized?



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5 responses to “Questions Not Answers Improve Motivation

  1. I liked this post a lot, dude.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Questions Not Answers Improve Motivation | STRETCH EXERCISE EAT --

  3. Very interesting idea Adam. I suspect that the phrasing of the question is key, something like ‘How can I…‘ feels very different to ‘Will I…‘.

    • Absolutely. Once you make the big change from the declarative to the interrogative, it will be interesting to analyze how different nuances impact results in various situations.

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