Extend Good Manners Even to Yourself: Always Ask Nicely


The internal dialog starts when I turn my car to enter the parking deck at work.

“Ugh, I really don’t want to climb the two flights of stairs from the parking space to the office.”

“But you should,” the little nag on my shoulder chimes in. “You’ve got weight to lose.”

“But, I’m tired, and my backpack is heavy.”

“But, you have cholesterol to lower and the threat of statins hanging over your head.”

“But, the stairwell is cold.”

I enter the elevator lobby and fumble around a bit. “Aw, darn it, I forgot my proximity card; I can’t unlock the elevator. I’ll have to climb the stairs so I can bang on the door to get somebody to let me in.”

“If you exercised more your mind would be sharper, and you wouldn’t be so forgetful.” The little nag says gleefully as I trudge up the stairs.

But all that is about to change now thanks to research just published by Ibrahim Senay at the University of Illinois. He and colleagues conducted research to determine whether the nature of internal dialog, specifically a request versus a command, could influence intention or behavior.

In other words, can you motivate yourself by asking yourself to do something rather than telling yourself that you should be doing something?

Senay and his group designed a series of experiments to see if requests rather than commands would influence behavior or intent. In the first experiment participants were asked to prepare for an anagram-solving task either by thinking that they would work on anagrams or by thinking whether they would work on anagrams. Then they were given 10 words and asked to rearrange the letters to form a different word. The participants who thought about whether they would solve anagrams solved significantly more than the others.

In the second task the participants were asked to write down 20 times either “Will I”, “I will”, “I”, or “will” before being asked to work on solving 10 anagrams as the first group was. Those that had written “Will I” 20 times performed significantly better than the other three groups.

In the third experiment, participants were asked to write “Will I” or “I will” and also either a random or patterned sequence of numbers. Then they were asked to report their intentions to exercise during the next week. The participants writing “Will I” and the patterned numbers had stronger intentions to exercise than the other three combinations. These results indicate that the primes (“Will I” or “I will”) need to be recognized as meaningful in order to be effective. Having participants write a random number sequence before the “Will I” prime apparently interfered with their ability to recognize it as a meaningful question.

In the last experiment, participants were asked to write either “Will I” or “I will” and record their exercise intentions using a scale of 1 to 7 (not at all to very much) then they were also asked to rate how much each of 12 reasons for exercising motivated them. The reasons included intrinsic ones “I want to take responsibility for my own health” and extrinsic ones “I would feel guilty if I did not”. The participants who wrote “Will I” showed significantly more intrinsic motivation and intention to exercise.

So, basically the study indicated that forms of thought that are elicited through the grammatical structure of the thought (asking a question or making a command) can motivate and influence behavior.

So, I predict that the next time I drive into the parking deck at work the conversation will go something like this:
“Will I climb the stairs this morning?”

“You know, I think I will.”

And the nag will be silenced.

© 2010 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

Author: Michele

Michele Arduengo is a life science and medical writer by profession and a creative non-fiction writer by hobby. In addition to publishing Grits and Purls since 2008, Michele has published essays in Wisconsin Woman, Chicken Soup for the Soul and has a weekly column in her local newspaper.

5 thoughts on “Extend Good Manners Even to Yourself: Always Ask Nicely”

  1. Nice post, Michele — I’m trying to think of whether that would work for me. I seem to actually do better, with at least some things (like exercise), if I go all “drill sargeant” on myself and say things like, “Of course you’re going to finish these last 5 minutes on this elliptical machine, and you know what? You’re going to increase your intensity because YOU KNOW YOU CAN.” A completely antithetical approach, but it seems to work for me. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t ever tried asking myself nicely, though. 🙂

  2. Hi Caroline,
    I’ve always tried the opposite approach, and it has worked well for the first 10 pounds and few months, but I really need to sustain the healthy habits for the rest of my life. So, I’m hoping the “ask nicely” approach will help me do that.
    What appeals to me about asking myself “let’s see if we can do this” is that its building on my innate curiosity–what happens if I do this? Will I do this?
    It also gives me control over what I do. I like control.
    I actually saw a blog about this research on Not Exactly Rocket Science and checked out the original paper. The work is pretty impressive, and it builds on what is already known about cognitive therapy.
    That said, I think, probably, that everybody needs a little bit of both–request and demand–to be truly successful.

  3. Hi Michele,
    Since I first read this, I’ve tried asking myself nicely. Unfortunately, the Mother in me instantly appears and I chide myself for not answering:
    “You asked nicely, now you deserve an answer.”
    I fear that people at the gym will start thinking of me as the crazy lady who talks to herself.

    1. But of course Kelly there is some consolation in the thought that you’ll be thought of as that “nice, polite” crazy woman rather than that “crazy nag”.

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