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.