For New Year's Resolutions, Ask Positive Questions

A simple question such as “Are you going to be cigarette-free this year?” can be a game-changing technique for people who want to influence their own or others’ behavior, according to new findings based on 40 years of research.

The findings show that asking direct, positive questions to oneself or others is more likely to result in positive results than asking negative questions, such as “Are you going to keep smoking this year?” or commands such as “Stop smoking.”

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, the University at Albany, State University of New York, the University of Idaho, and Washington State University worked together to examine more than 100 studies investigating the “question-behavior effect.” This effect happens when asking people about performing a certain behavior influences whether they will actually do it in the future.

The effect has been shown to last for more than six months.

Writing in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, they examined why the effect occurs. Their findings offer guidance to social marketers, policy makers, and others seeking to impact human behavior.

“If you question a person about performing a future behavior, the likelihood of that behavior happening will change,” said Dave Sprott, Ph.D., a co-author and senior associate dean of the Carson College of Business, Washington State University.

For example, when people are asked “Will you recycle?” it causes a psychological response that can influence their behavior when they have an opportunity to recycle. The question reminds them that recycling is good for the environment but may also make them feel uncomfortable if they do not recycle. Therefore, they become motivated to recycle to reduce their feelings of discomfort.

The findings suggest that questioning is a relatively simple yet effective technique to produce consistent, significant changes across a wide range of behaviors. In fact, the technique can result in quite a bit of good, such as swaying students toward cheating less in college, encouraging people to exercise more, recycle, or reduce gender stereotyping.

“We found the effect is strongest when questions are used to encourage behavior with personal and socially accepted norms, such as eating healthy foods or volunteering,” said Eric R. Spangenberg, Ph.D., first author and dean of the Paul Merage School of Business, University of California, Irvine.

“But it can be used effectively to even influence consumer purchases, such as a new computer.”

The researchers advise caution when asking about bad habits such as skipping class or drinking alcohol. In their review, they found a study showing that people asked about vices later did them more than a control group.

The question-behavior effect was also shown to be strongest when questions were administered via a computer or paper-and-pencil survey, and when people were asked to respond with a “yes” or “no.” They also found that those using the technique are better off not providing a specific time frame for the target behavior.

Finally, the key to influencing someone’s behavior is to ask a question rather than make a statement. For example, parents asking their high school-age children, “Will you be sure to drive sober tonight?” should be more effective than saying, “Don’t drink and drive.”

For people making New Year’s resolutions, a question like, “Will I exercise — yes or no?” may be more effective than declaring, “I will exercise.”

Source: Washington State University

Couple talking photo by shutterstock.