Want to Bolster Your New Year’s Resolution? Ask, Don’t Tell

“Will you exercise this year?” That simple question may be a game-changing technique for people who want to influence their own or others’ behavior, according to a recent study spanning 40 years of research. With 2018 in full swing, it may also be the perfect way to keep your New Year’s resolutions. The research is the first comprehensive look at more than 100 studies examining the “question-behavior effect,” a phenomenon in which asking people about performing a certain behavior influences whether they actually do it in the future. As it turns out, the effect has been shown to last more than six months after questioning.

Why questions can influence behavior

If you question a person about performing a future behavior, the likelihood of that behavior happening will change. When people are asked “Will you save money?” it causes a psychological response that can influence their behavior when they get a chance to set aside some extra cash.

The question reminds them that saving money is good for their financial health, or perhaps it enables them to purchase a new car or put a down payment on a house, but it may also make them feel uncomfortable if they are not saving money when they have the opportunity. Thus, they become motivated to spend less to alleviate their feelings of discomfort.

Overall, the findings suggest that questioning is a relatively simple yet effective technique to produce consistent, significant changes across a wide domain of behaviors. The technique can sway people toward cheating less in college, exercising more, saving money, recycling, or reducing gender stereotyping.

Benefits of using the technique

The question-behavior effect is strongest when questions are used to encourage behavior related to personal and socially accepted norms, such as eating healthy foods or staying focused at work. It can also be used effectively to influence consumer purchases, such as a new laptop or smartphone. Plus, it’s easy to ask a question, and it can be done in a variety of ways – from ads and mailers, to social media and interpersonal communications.

In fact, the research found the effect to be strongest when questions are administered via computer or paper-and-pencil survey, and when questions are answered with a “yes” or “no” response. Additionally, it found that those using the technique are better off not providing a specific timeframe for the target behavior. The study also suggests, however, that the technique may be less impactful on long-term habits or frequent behaviors.

Tips for New Year’s resolution makers

There are mobile apps and other tools available today that can provide an extra boost to keep people on track. For example, The Fabulous is a science-based app incubated at Duke University’s Behavioral Economics Lab that helps users build healthy habits and routines into their daily lives. By experimenting with behavioral economics’ findings to identify people’s irrationalities, the app ultimately aims to help users unlock their full potential.

Another approach is to identify an accountability partner – someone who coaches another person toward the desired behavior change and provides peer accountability along the way. HabitShare is an app that tracks users’ habits and can easily be shared with friends for extra accountability and motivation.

Ultimately, the key to influencing someone’s behavior is to ask a question rather than make a statement. For people making New Year’s resolutions, a question like, “Will I save enough money to buy a car this year – yes or no?” may be more effective than declaring, “I will save money.”

Knowing the question-behavior effect can last upwards of six months after questioning, this technique may be just what you need to maintain your resolution long enough to form a habit out of the desired behavior. Whether you want to exercise more, save money, or even launch your own start-up in 2018, you can get the ball rolling with a simple question

Dr. David Sprott is senior associate dean and Boeing/Scott and Linda Carson chaired professor of marketing at the Washington State University Carson College of Business. He earned a Ph.D. in marketing, with an emphasis on psychology and consumer decision making, from the University of South Carolina. Sprott’s research interests span various issues related to consumer decision making, social influence, information provision and marketing public policy.

Dr. Sprott conducted this research on the question-behavior effect in partnership with marketing researchers from the University of California, Irvine; the State University of New York at Albany; and the University of Idaho. Their findings were published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and offer guidance to social marketers, policy makers and others seeking to impact human behavior.


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