In the game of goal achievement, willingness trumps willpower. That’s the conclusion of several studies conducted by psychologist Ibrahim Senay, PhD, at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
Senay’s research shows that how we phrase our goals has a big impact on whether or not we achieve them. Specifically, Senay’s studies have demonstrated that when participants phrase their goals using statements of commitment (as in, “I will exercise today”), they are less likely to fulfill those goals than when they use interrogative phrases (as in, “Will I exercise today?”). And it’s not just true of propositions involving exercise: Across several experiments involving many different kinds of activities, participants were consistently more motivated to achieve their goals when using the question format.
We talked with Professor Senay about his findings:
EL: Did the results surprise you?
Senay: Yes, initially we expected to find just the opposite: that “I will” would be more motivating.
EL: Why is phrasing a goal as a question, rather than a commitment, so powerful?
Senay: It may be that, in the question format, the person comes up with his or her own reasons and gives more thought to what he or she stands to gain from pursuing a goal or task. The “Will I?” sentence structure respects the addressee’s sense of autonomy, inspiring a sense of responsibility rather than triggering guilt or shame. Hence, the person may connect with more intrinsic or autonomous reasons for doing something.
EL: What’s the upshot of this research?
Senay: That self-questioning can be a powerful motivator for change — one that each of us can employ to create a sense of open-mindedness about our current life choices and priorities.
Read more about Senay’s research in Scientific American Mind, “The Willpower Paradox” (July 2010) at www.scientificamerican.com/mind.