If you haven’t yet heard or read any of James Clear’s articles , we highly recommend that you do so. His writing is focused on how to build positive habits. And if you haven’t yet noticed, one of the core philosophies in our nutrition program is exactly that. It’s all about habits. In this article, James writes about a great technique to use when saying no to temptation.
One great thing about this is that he included a reference to an interesting scientific study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. In a nutshell, this is what the study found:
- 120 students were split into two groups
- The difference between these two groups was saying “I can’t” vs “I don’t” when confronted with a temptation
- For example, when confronted with a temptation, one group was told to respond with “I can’t do X”. The other was told to respond with “I don’t do X”
- After repeating the phrases, each student answered a set of questions unrelated to the study
- Once they finished answering the questions, they handed in their sheets, thinking that the study was over.
- As each student walked out of the room, they were offered a complimentary treat. The choice was between a chocolate candy bar, or a granola “healthy” bar
- As the students walked away, a researcher recorded their snack choice
- The students who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time.
- The students who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 36% of the time.
Conclusion: The simple change in terminology or choice of words significantly improved the odds that each person would make a more healthy food choice.
James goes on to describe how our words help frame our sense of empowerment and control. In addition, he states that the words we use create a feedback loop in our brains that impact our future behaviors. The “I can’t” choice of words acts as a feedback loop reminding us of our limitations. It leads to a feeling that we are being forced to do something against our will. On the flip side, the “I don’t” choice of words acts as a feedback loop reminding us of our control and power over the situation. He sees it as a phrase that can propel us toward breaking our bad habits and following our good ones.
He quotes Heidi Grant Halvorson, director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University:
“I don’t” is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. “I can’t” isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency.
The change in language leads to a change in mindset. And we now have a little science to back that up.
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