In the previous article, we talked about self-talk affecting your motivation. How is that? Much like people who read into neurolinguistic programming (NLP) will tell you, the structure of words seems to have an actual effect on your cognition. For a couple decades now, it’s been believed that linguistic categories and language structures have an effect on your mental representation of events. (Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998) When you hear, “I went to the gym,” you get a specific mental image. But if you hear, “I am going to the gym,” you get a different mental image because the tense of “I went” assumes the idea is completed, versus “I am going” which assumes that the action is still in progress. So that’s past and present tense. But what about future tense?
The future is what you will do, and here’s where motivational self-talk comes in. Just using this linguistic technique of tense, you can bridge the gap between what you’re doing now and what you intend to do by using future tense. A future tense of the going to the gym example is, “I will go to the gym.” But is that enough to get you going? Some coaches might say that, but luckily, there is a more effective way.
Using the word structure to form intention:
When it comes to effectiveness of self-talk on motivation, one thing is certain, and that’s not certainty. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that using questions in an interrogative manner can help drive behavior. From asking someone a favor (versus demanding it) to persuasive speech, using rhetorical questions has been known to help direct and drive people’s motivations. (Senay et al., 2010) Many coaches and psychotherapists use a technique known as Motivational Interviewing.
In Motivational Interviewing, the coach or therapist will ask open-ended questions to their client to so that they can fill in the the ends with their own imagination. For example, a coach may ask, “How do you plan on building your exercise regime?” or “What are you going to do to get more clients for your business?” Given these open-ended questions, the client will formulate ideas about accomplishing their goals without the the coach or therapist imposing any ideas on them. And the idea is that being questioned about future behavior can conjure thoughts that intrinsically motivate you in that goal, which leads you to follow-up with that goal with intention and ultimately an action toward achieving the goal. (Senay et al., 2010) So, basically when you are given a question, your brain automatically wants to answer it with a driving force of action that’s powered by the motivation to get from where you are to where you want to be. This is awesome, and you don’t even need the coach to do it.
Interrogate yourself! Ask a question
You can use this effect on yourself using self-talk! In a 2010 study, researchers wanted to see if there would be any differing effect on motivation between interrogative self-talk and declarative self-talk. In the study, different test groups were exposed to declarative and interrogative questions using both incidental methods (given Likert scale questions) and an intentional intervention. In the intervention, participants were primed with a “handwriting exercise”, where they wrote a prime of either:
- the interrogative “Will I”
- the declarative “I will”
- or “Will”
“I” and “Will” were used as separate controls to see if word pairing structure had any effect in the experiment. After the prime, the participants were asked to solve anagrams.
Interestingly, the group who wrote “Will I” had the highest level of engagement in the task. (Senay et al., 2010) The behavior of the first goal translated over into the next. The group who wrote “Will I” as an exercise repeated those two words in their head before given a new goal. Once given that new goal, they were more motivated. The same study conducted another experiment to determine if these same word primes affected participants’ intention to exercise and commit time to physical activity. As a result, they found that the participants had more established intentions when “Will I” occupied their mind, than when “I will” did. This means that just questioning whether you will do something increases your motivation and makes your mind fill in the blanks with how you will get there.
Turning it into action
Having intention is one thing, and doing is another. You may have the intention to read a book every week, but it takes more than intention to get that done. You need to take action and actually sit down to do the reading. The same is true with any other goal. So what effect does interrogative self-talk have on creating motivation that turns into action?
What if that action is something you perceive as important? A 2012 study by Godin et al. set out to see if there was a difference in the effect of declarative and interrogative self-talk with and without a socially perceived virtue attached to the task (e.g. moral norm). In the experiment, the participant groups were given a Likert questionnaire- with statements about intention to do leisure time physical activity (LTPA) in the next 3 weeks, and the test groups were declarative, interrogative, declarative with moral norm, and interrogative with moral norm. An example of a declarative statement with a moral norm would be, “Practicing regular leisure-time physical activity in the next 3 weeks would be acting in line with my personal values.” Three weeks later, the researchers polled the participants on how much LTPA they actually had since the intervention. The results showed that the moral norm actually had a neutralising effect on the interrogative form of self-talk.
The findings of the study showed that using only the interrogative produced higher levels of LTPA during the 3 weeks after the intervention, and that when paired with a moral norm, the interrogative form wasn’t even as effective as the declarative paired with a moral norm was. (Godin et al., 2012) This is thought to be because when paired with a moral norm, the interrogative form of self-talk can be perceived as pressuring, and this pressuring acts as a social pressure, increasing anxiety and causing a reactance effect.
Essentially, when you’re questioned about your relation to something you feel morally connected to, you begin to see the inconsistency in your behavior from your belief- a cognitive dissonance- and you react in withdrawal. However, having just the interrogative without a relation to a moral norm motivates you by allowing you to imagine what you want to accomplish and motivates you to take action without feeling pressured to comply to an expectation. When we feel connected to an expectation, we find it harder to accomplish. And that expectation is directly related to how important you believe it to be. Pretty much, the more you tell yourself how important it is that you achieve your goal, the less motivated you’ll actually be to do it. So it’s important that when you use self-talk, ask yourself whether you’re going to do your goal, and don’t mention that it’s important.
When it comes to motivating yourself with self-talk, it seems that how you say it really does affect you. Remember to structure your self-talk using the future tense, so that your mind isn’t tricked into thinking that you’re already doing what you want to motivate yourself towards. Remember to use the interrogative form rather than the declarative. This means that you’re asking yourself a question rather than making a declarative statement. Finally, remember that you shouldn’t connect your self-talk to any social or moral norms. Don’t create expectations like, “I’m going to do this because it’s the right thing to do” or “I’m exercising because I should be healthy.” Just focus on the action.
When you’re trying to motivate yourself to get the ball rolling, try self-talking like this:
- “Will I go to the gym today?”
- “Will I reach out to those local businesses this week?”
- “Will I give my presentation with a lot of energy?”
- “Will I kill it?”
Godin, G., Bélanger-Gravel, A., Vézina-Im, L., Amireault, S., & Bilodeau, A. (2012, September). Question–behaviour effect: A randomised controlled trial of asking intention in the interrogative or declarative form. Psychology & Health, 27(9), 1086-1099. doi:10.1080/08870446.2012.671617
Senay, I., Albarracin, D., & Noguchi, K. (2010). Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense. Psychological Science, 21(4), 499-504. doi:10.1177/0956797610364751
Zwaan, R. A., & Radvansky, G. A. (1998). Situation models in language comprehension and memory. Psychological bulletin, 123(2), 162.