Want to motivate someone to alter their behavior? Asking them a simple question might be all it takes to spark a significant, long-lasting change, according to a new study.
Asking questions like “Will you exercise this year?” can be a game-changing technique for people who want to influence their own or others’ behavior, the researchers found.
They suggest the key to influencing someone’s behavior is to ask a question rather than make a statement. For example, parents asking their children, “Will you drink and drive?” should be more effective than saying, “Don’t drink and drive.”
For people making New Year’s resolutions, a question like, “Will I exercise – yes or no?” may be more effective than declaring, “I will exercise.”
The researchers took a comprehensive look at more than 100 studies that examined the “question-behavior effect” (QBE), a phenomenon in which asking people about performing a certain behavior influences whether they do it in the future. The effect has been shown to last more than six months after questioning.
Writing in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, marketing researchers from the University of California, Irvine, the University at Albany, State University of New York, the University of Idaho and Washington State University examined why the effect occurs. Their findings offer guidance to social marketers, policy makers and others seeking to impact human behavior.
Why can questions influence behavior?
“If you question a person about performing a future behavior, the likelihood of that behavior happening will change,” said Dave Sprott, a co-author and senior associate dean of the Carson College of Business, Washington State University.
The basic premise is that when people are asked questions like “Will you recycle?” it causes a psychological response that can influence their behavior when they get a chance to recycle. The question reminds them that recycling is good for the environment, but may also make them feel uncomfortable if they are not recycling. So, they become motivated to recycle to alleviate their feelings of discomfort.
Questioning is a relatively simple yet effective technique to produce consistent, significant changes across a wide domain of behaviors, the researchers found. The technique can influence a wide variety of behaviors, including influencing consumer purchases, reducing cheating in college, impacting risky behaviors among adolescents, increasing exercise and other health-related behaviors, increasing recycling, and increasing charitable donations of time and money.
With regard to characteristics of the behavior the effect was found to be strongest:
- for behaviors related to personal or societal welfare
- for novel rather than familiar behaviors
- for behaviors carrying psychological or social risk
What are the benefits of using the technique?
“We found the effect is strongest when questions are used to encourage behavior with personal and socially accepted norms, such as eating healthy foods or volunteering,” said Eric R. Spangenberg, first author and dean of the Paul Merage School of Business, University of California, Irvine. “But it can be used effectively to even influence consumer purchases, such as a new computer.”
“It is pretty easy to ask a question, and it can be done in a variety of means, such as ads, mailers, online media, and interpersonal communications,” said Sprott.
The researchers found the question-behavior effect to be strongest when questions are asked via a computer or written survey, and when responses are either “yes” or “no.” They also found that those using the technique are better off not providing a specific time frame for the target behavior.
The study suggests that the technique will be less impactful on habits or behaviors that consumers have done a lot. The researchers also suggest being careful with asking about habits like skipping class or drinking alcohol: one study showed that people who were asked about vices later did them more than a control group.