Positive affirmations may be popular, but if you want to influence behavior, questions trump statements. But not just any old questions. One type of question in particular can create powerful psychological leverage for changing your own and others’ behavior.
“Stay calm,” you remind yourself in difficult moments. “Don’t drink and drive,” say the public service ads. “Be respectful of each other,” some mediators say at the start of their mediations.
Clear and direct, you hope these messages influence behavior. But after combing through 40 years’ worth of research on messaging and behavior, a team of researchers from four U.S. universities concluded that asking is better than telling when it comes to influencing your own or another’s behavior.
“If you question a person about performing a future behavior, the likelihood of that behavior happening will change,” says Dave Sprott, a co-author from Washington State University. It appears questions prompt a psychological response that is different than the response to statements.
This means, for instance, that “Please recycle” is likely to have less impact than, “Will you recycle?”
Although the robustness of the question-behavior effect is evident, its theoretical underpinnings remain, say the researchers, “a matter of some debate.” So we know it occurs but we don’t yet have a clear understanding about why. Is it because “Will you recycle?” makes us look inward? Is asking for commitment? Causes a deeper analysis? Prompts discomfort from guilt if we don’t recycle? We don’t really know yet.
Here are a few other takeaways from the meta-analysis:
- Researchers found the effect to be strongest when questions are used to encourage behavior that fits the receiver’s personal and socially accepted norms. Translation: “Will you agree not to interrupt?” is likely to yield excellent results if asked of my husband, yet be less effective if asked of me (click on the links to see why that might be).
- The effect is weaker where vices and bad habits already exist. This isn’t surprising, as we already know how difficult big behavior change can feel. The researchers suggest it is better to aim at small behavioral changes that collectively over time can lead to substantive outcomes.
- The effect was more pronounced with questions that can be answered with a yes or no and seems to be influential for at least six months.
It’s notable that the researchers repeatedly used “will” to construct questions that have the most impact on behavior.
“Will” is, of course, the future tense of the verb “to be,” implying ownership and action. It is stronger than “can” and “could,” which imply the question is about ability rather than action. And it is stronger than “would,” which is conditional and implies possibility more than probability.