The Frontal Cortex

Will I?

We can’t help but talk to ourselves. At any given moment, there’s a running commentary unfolding in our stream of consciousness, an incessant soliloquy of observations, questions and opinions. But what’s the best way to structure all this introspective chatter? What kind of words should we whisper to ourselves? And does all this self-talk even matter?

These are the fascinating questions asked in a new paper led by Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and published in Psychological Science. The experiment was straightforward. Fifty three undergrads were divided into two groups. The first group was told to prepare for an anagram-solving task by thinking, for one minute, about whether they would work on anagrams. This is the “Will I?” condition, which the scientists refer to as the “interrogative form of self-talk”. The second group, in contrast, was told to spend one minute thinking that they would work on anagrams. This is the “I Will” condition, or the “declarative form of self-talk”. Both groups were then given ten minutes to solve as many anagrams as possible.

At first glance, we might assume that the “I Will” group would solve more anagrams. After all, they are committing themselves to the task, silently asserting that they will solve the puzzles. The interrogative group, on the other hand, was just asking themselves a question; there was no commitment, just some inner uncertainty.

But that’s not what happened. It turned out that that the “Will I?” group solved nearly 25 percent more anagrams. When people asked themselves a question – Can I do this? – they became more motivated to actually do it, which allowed them to solve more puzzles. This suggests that the Nike slogan should be “Just do it?” and not “Just do it”.

Why is interrogative self-talk more effective? Subsequent experiments by the scientists suggested that the power of the “Will I?” condition resides in its ability to elicit intrinsic motivation. (We are intrinsically motivated when we are doing an activity for ourselves, because we enjoy it. In contrast, extrinsic motivation occurs when we’re doing something for a paycheck or any “extrinsic” reward.) By interrogating ourselves, we set up a well-defined challenge that we can master. And it is this desire for personal fulfillment – being able to tell ourselves that we solved the anagrams – that actually motivates us to keep on trying. Here is an excerpt from the paper:

Self-posed questions about a future behavior may inspire thoughts about autonomous or intrinsically motivated reasons to pursue a goal, leading to interrogative self-talk and intention forming corresponding intentions and ultimately performing the behavior. In fact, people are more likely to engage in a behavior when they have intrinsic motivation (i.e., when they feel personally responsible for their action) than when they have extrinsic motivation (i.e., when they feel external factors such as other people are responsible for their action) in diverse domains from education to medical treatment to addiction recovery to task performance

Scientists have recognized the importance of intrinsic motivation for decades. In the 1970s, Mark Lepper, David Greene and Richard Nisbett conducted a classic study on preschoolers who liked to draw. They divided the kids into three groups. The first group of kids was told that they’d get a reward – a nice blue ribbon with their name on it – if they continued to draw. The second group wasn’t told about the rewards but was given a blue ribbon after drawing. (This was the “unexpected reward” condition.) Finally, the third group was the “no award” condition. They weren’t even told about the blue ribbons.

After two weeks of reinforcement, the scientists observed the preschoolers during a typical period of free play. Here’s where the results get interesting: The kids in the “no award’ and “unexpected award” conditions kept on drawing with the same enthusiasm as before. Their behavior was unchanged. In contrast, the preschoolers in the “award” group now showed much less interest in the activity. Instead of drawing, they played with blocks, or took a nap, or went outside. The reason was that their intrinsic motivation to draw had been contaminated by blue ribbons; the extrinsic reward had diminished the pleasure of playing with crayons and paper. (Daniel Pink, in his excellent book Drive, refers to this as the “Sawyer Effect”.)

So the next time you’re faced with a difficult task, don’t look at a Nike ad, and don’t think about the extrinsic rewards of success. Instead, ask yourself a simple question: Will I do this? I think I will.

Update: Daniel Pink has more.


  1. #1 royniles
    July 12, 2010

    I will if I can.

  2. #2 Ernesto Ramirez
    July 12, 2010

    Great article. This issue of motivating behavior has been around for a while, and you mentioned some good researchers. I just wanted to point out two more you may or may not have come across.

    Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester developed and have done an amazing amount of research on a theory of human behavior and motivation called Self-Determination Theory. It takes into account the three basic principles of human endeavors, competence, relatedness, and autonomy and layers on motivation processes (intrinsic vs extrinsic motivators). You can learn more here:

    Also, you may want to check out this 10min video of a talk given by Daniel Pink about motivation for work behaviors: It is worth taking the time, trust me.

  3. #3 Zoasterboy
    July 12, 2010

    Reading this actually made me feel a lot better about contemplating quitting my job just a few moments before.

    I actually expected the opposite as I began reading! Very interesting.

    Off to work.

  4. #4 Mozglubov
    July 12, 2010

    Sounds like Yoda’s training methods take another hit…

  5. #5 Birger Johansson
    July 12, 2010

    Another news item relevant for introspection…
    “A person’s language may influence how he thinks about other people”

  6. #6 Extfg
    July 12, 2010

    Oh good. I always hated the little engine that could.

  7. #7 Mike Brooks
    July 12, 2010

    Wonderful blog and thanks for the helpful info. I read Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and this fits very well with the themes contained in his book.

    I know this is totally anecdotal, but have many of ya’ll used Nike’s slogan on a personal level for motivation? I know that I have – many times over. To me, it is a means of tapping into self-efficacy. I CAN do this – don’t make any excuses. Don’t fold. Don’t cop out. Don’t quit. Don’t listen to the naysaying voice in the head. Very unscientific, I know, but perhaps the “Just Do It” is more nuanced. Few things in life are black & white, so my guess is that this “Just Do It” type of thinking can be helpful in some circumstances. I just KNOW it…or DO I know it?

  8. #8 Lonél Mostert
    July 13, 2010

    Just loved it, I am the “should I and what will happen” type and then I do it anyway.

  9. #9 Neil Gains
    July 13, 2010

    Nike should move to the more motivating tag line, “Can You Do It?”

  10. #10 Sara Aase
    July 13, 2010

    We know this — intrinsically, ha — and then (some of us) spend a lot of time and angst trying to get back to this bit of the soul again.

  11. #11 Niels
    July 13, 2010

    “Just do it?” haha. Nike should do some a/b testing to find out how it holds up. 😉

  12. #12 Anthony Sebastian
    July 13, 2010

    Will I post a comment on this blog? Will I give further thought to doing so?

    Will I give some thought to my reaction to Jonah’s report of the study findings? will I find myself thinking I should read the original paper? Will I make the effort to locate it?

    Will I mull those questions over tonight as I lie abed?

  13. #13 jb
    July 14, 2010

    I have to question the opening statement of this post….”we can’t help but talk to ourselves”. While it’s true that our brain automatically reverts to operating “in the default mode” when we don’t give it something more demanding to do, it turns out this mental chatter uses as much glucose and oxygen as giving the brain a more demanding mental task. Mindful-awareness meditation trains the brain to just be present for whatever sense perceptions are happening without that ongoing commentary and when a decision about action is required, one automatically discriminates between the choices based on whether the action will be helpful to self and others or not. This is truly getting in touch with one’s intrinsic power and wisdom and compassion and saves energy.

  14. #14 Leigh
    July 14, 2010

    I went back to the article (thanks for the link), because their conclusion about the connection between self-questioning and intrinsic motivation wasn’t clear to me. Having read the article, I’m even more fascinated by the implications. It seems likely that this is at least part of the mechanism for the success of Ericksonian hypnosis methods. Sure would be interesting to see a similar study with followup on actual behavior. Also, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what’s physically happening in the brain while these tests are going on?

  15. #15 janetlansbury
    July 18, 2010

    Wonderful article, makes me feel much better about being a self-questioning kind of person.

    A primary goal of mine as a parent educator is to help parents encourage their child’s intrinsic motivation. An easy way to rob our children of inner-directedness is to ask them as babies to play and learn in ways that please us, to become the people we want them to be, rather than who they are. Since the motivation to please one’s parents (the people a child needs most) is more powerful than any prize, we must use our power cautiously.

    I love what the commenter, Sara, said above about spending “a lot of time and angst trying to get back to this bit of the soul again.”

    I recently posted about a learning program that tempts parents to be intrinsic motivation robbers.

  16. #16 Jason John Wells
    July 18, 2010

    I followed David Allen’s tweet to your post. This is an interesting study from the productivity self-help point of view.

    In his (AWESOME) books, Allen recommends affirmations. I’m wondering if affirmations framed as questions might be more effective.

    He also wrote a white paper on journaling as a “spiritual inbox”. Because he’s so bang on with workflow I gave it a shot. I’m using handwriting font in Bean (a light weight OSS OSX word processor) which is neat since my own handwriting sucks.

    I’m starting to think I should be writing myself questions as well.

    Any thoughts?

    Make a good day,
    Jason John Wells

  17. #17 Tutoring Match
    August 5, 2010

    The “Will I” does add a different motivation, it challenges the person to answer the question by completing the task whatever it may be.

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    September 25, 2010

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