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by Ali Hall

October 1, 2010

Questions may push you further forward than affirmations

I received an email from a sports psychologist colleague of mine the other day. She was horrified to read a recent study article that cast doubt on the task-performance value of the self-affirmative statement “I will!” After all, athletes have long thought that successfully overcoming wavering motivation or lack of confidence was just a matter of saying “I Will!” So, I could understand my colleague’s shock and dismay.

Causing my colleague even more shock and dismay was that the research summarized in the article demonstrated that a simple question had more motivational value that the time-honored statement “I will!” The study showed that asking ourselves, “Will I?” did more than saying “I will!” to support task performance and increase intrinsic motivation.

And, it calls into question traditional assumptions within public service messaging and self-help literature designed to motivate people toward healthier or more productive behaviors.


The research by University of Illinois Professor Dolores Albarracin and Visiting Assistant Professor Ibrahim Senay, along with Kenji Noguchi, Assistant Professor at Southern Mississippi University, has shown that those who ask themselves whether they will perform a task generally do better than those who tell themselves that they will. In one particular study, participants were parsed into the "I will" and "Will I" categories, and then asked how much they intended to exercise in the following week. They were also made to fill out a psychological scale meant to measure intrinsic motivation. The results of this experiment showed that participants not only did better with their exercise as a result of the question, but that asking themselves a question also increased their intrinsic motivation.

"The popular idea is that self-affirmations enhance people's ability to meet their goals," Professor Albarracin says. "It seems, however, that when it comes to performing a specific behavior, asking questions is a more promising way of achieving your objectives."

What’s up with that? I dug into my work as a behavior change consultant to decipher this.

When we ask ourselves questions, we allow ourselves to explore the breadth and depth of our willingness and confidence and readiness to make changes; our meeting our own questions with our own answers allows us to talk ourselves into things in a larger and more sustaining way, more nuanced and powerful than a simple affirmative utterance. We support our autonomy to move in that direction. Talking ourselves into a change, answering the question “Will I?” helps us decide fully and specifically to make it happen.

Next time I fear I lack the motivation to get myself to the pool or feel discouraged in the face of a fitness challenge, I think I might try it. Instead of saying “I will,” I wonder, will I remember to ask “Will I?”?

To read more: Will We Succeed? The Science of Self-Motivation