Language and Behavior

How does our inner speech affect our thoughts and behavior?

Language is a common denominator that cuts across many of the other themes studied by the Social Action Lab.

Human beings silently talk to themselves in their daily lives. Thus, current lab projects involve self-talk, the use of questions versus assertions in motivation, as well as the use of Natural Language Processing to study psychological processes and to change attitudes and behaviors.

Selected Findings:

The accidental order of words within your train of thought changes your goals.

The order in which incidental words appear in consciousness can change our attitudes and intentions. For example, being primed with “Be Nice” in the middle of a competitive “prisoner’s dilemma” game makes you less likely to turn on your partner than being primed with “Nice Be.” The phrase “nice be” is parsed as if one was already nice enough and thus encourages defection.

When we experience difficulties, our minds split into a director and a directed.

When a situation is difficult, we lack control over a situation, or we must take action, we talk to ourselves in the second person, as a “You.”  We also ask ourselves more questions. Talking to yourself as You is more effective to regulate behavior than talking to yourself as I. People form stronger intentions and complete goals more when they talk to themselves in the second person (You) than in the first person (I).

Questions promote behaviors more than do statements.

Asking yourself whether you would do something is more likely to produce that behavior than asserting that you will do it. Apparently, our internal conversation works best when we are polite with ourselves and when we allow our minds to fill the blanks rather than simply dictating what to do.

Affirmative questions promote behavioral repetition.

When you see a dessert tray and are trying to eat less sugar, the question “Which one should I get?” makes it more likely that you will consume the dessert. People are more successful at changing their behavior when they ask a question in the negative: “Which one should I not get?” This effect is automatic, without requiring someone to consciously stop their behavior.

The language of action is the language of effort.

Action means more effort, agency, and change than inaction. Of all three, however, effort is what matters most, which explains our findings that action is valued more than inaction even though inaction is also key to health and social functioning.