In a nifty set of experiments, three social scientists explored the differences between what they call “declarative” self-talk (I will fix it!) and “interrogative” self-talk (Can I fix it?). They began by presenting a group of participants with some anagrams to solve (for example, rearranging the letters in “sauce” to spell “cause”.) But before the participants tackled the problem, the researchers asked one half of them to take a minute to ask themselves whether they would complete the task – and the other half to tell themselves that they would complete the task.
The self-questioning group solved significantly more anagrams than the self-affirming group.
The researchers – Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois, along with Kenji Noguchi of the University of Southern Mississippi – then enlisted a new group to try a variation with a twist of trickery: “We told participants that we were interested in people’s handwriting practices. With this pretence, participants were given a sheet of paper to write down 20 times one of the following word pairs: Will I, I will, I, or Will. Then they were asked to work on a series of 10 anagrams in the same way participants in Experiment One did.”
The outcome was the same. People “primed” with Will I solved nearly twice as many anagrams as people in the other three groups. In subsequent experiments, the basic pattern held. Those who approached a task with questioning self-talk did better than those who began with affirming self-talk.
“Setting goals and striving to achieve them assumes, by definition, that there is a discrepancy between where you are and want to be. When you doubt, you probably achieve the right mindset,” researcher Albarracin explained in an email to me.
“In addition, asking questions forces you to define if you really want something and probably think about what you want, even in the presence of obstacles.”