A behaviour change word-trick

Can we change our own behaviour simply by altering the words we choose?

Research suggests that we can – and that to do so may be simpler than we imagine.

For some time, we have had evidence that the language we encounter can directly influence our behaviour.

For example, when older people are exposed to positive or negative age stereotypes before taking part in a physical or cognitive activities (such as walking, matching items to words or memory tasks), their performance changes. Priming with age-positive words such as ‘wise’ results in faster walking and processing speeds and improved memory performance. Priming with age-negative words such as ‘forgetful’ has the opposite effect.

Throughout life, we mentally squirrel away ideas about what is possible, how we expect to behave and what is likely to happen. These ideas – and the language they are dressed in – shape our experience. Often we have little or no awareness of what’s going on.

So could we make this process more conscious, in order to help ourselves live in ways that work better for us?

It seems that we can. Here’s one simple idea that can help.

When we want to change our behaviour, we can choose to focus either on the activity itself or on our personal identity.

For example, let’s say we decide to start taking more exercise. If we focus on the activity itself, we might say something like, “I should go for a run” or “I’ll go running later”. However, if we instead focus on our sense of identity, we start to think of ourselves “a runner” – and simply by doing that, we make it more likely that we’ll actually get our shoes on and make it out the door.

A 2011 study by Bryan, Walton and Dweck found that people were 13% more likely to vote in an election when they were encouraged to see themselves as ‘voters’ rather than simply asked to vote.

How we feel about the identity in question seems to be significant. In this study, people became less likely to cheat during a test when they received the message “Please don’t be a cheater” than the message “Please don’t cheat”.

It seems that many people are willing to do things they don’t agree with as long as they can mentally separate the behaviour from who they think they are. The moment the behaviour starts to define their identity, that willingness can quickly disappear.

So if there’s something you’d like to be doing but you’re not quite getting around to it, or you keep finding yourself doing things you’d really rather not, why not experiment with the language you choose to describe yourself? It might just be worth a try.