Will you read this post? Think about it…

Will he or won't he?

Will he or won't he?

What do you think would motivate people more — getting them to focus on what they are about to do or asking them to think about whether they will do it or not?

When a group of students were given one or the other of these contemplative tasks before facing an anagrams exercise, the ones who had asked themselves whether they would do it completed more anagrams than the group who were just thinking about doing it.

In another experiment, just writing ‘Will I’ rather than ‘I will’ several times before the task meant that students were likely to commit themselves to more time exercising during the coming week. Interestingly, just writing the word ‘will’ was not enough — it had to be the question form.

Free will = motivation

The authors of the study (Ibrahim Senay et al.) suggest that prompting people with the questioning phrase ‘Will I…’ leads to ‘interrogative self-talk’. They argue that asking yourself questions rather than making declarative statements is more likely to lead to intrinsic (or internal) motivation because you have a greater feeling of autonomy. You are able to choose and, if you have chosen to do this, it must be more important to you. Other researchers have shown that a belief in free will can have a positive influence on your behaviour.

The power of consistency

I run workshops on influencing skills and a couple of the snippets of research that I mention seem to relate to this:

  • Voter turnout in an election increased to 86.7% in people who had been asked to make a prediction about whether they would vote, compared to 61.5% in those who were not asked the question.
  • When a restaurant changed the receptionist’s script when taking a booking from ‘Please call if you have to cancel,’ to ‘Will you call if you have to cancel?’ the no-show rate dropped from 30% to 10%.

Professor Richard Cialdini attributes this effect to our need to act in ways that are consistent with our previously established views of ourselves. Asking ourselves questions that draw attention to our motivations force us to define who we are and what is important to us. Having defined these things, we have to act in accordance with them or face cognitive dissonance.

In my workshops and one-to-one guidance, I am increasingly saying ‘Think about this question and feel free to say no. Will you act on what we have discussed today?’

  • Think about this question and feel free to say no. Will you rate or comment on this post?

Further reading

  • Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracín, & Kenji Noguchi (2010). Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense Psychological Science : 10.1177/0956797610364751
  • Vohs, K., & Schooler, J. (2008). The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating Psychological Science, 19 (1), 49-54 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02045.x
  • Greenwald, A., Carnot, C., Beach, R., & Young, B. (1987). Increasing voting behavior by asking people if they expect to vote. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72 (2), 315-318 DOI: 10.1037/0021-9010.72.2.315
  • Cialdini, R.B. (2000) Influence: Science and Practice. Pearson Education.

Related post: On your best (planned) behaviour


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  1. #1 by Dana on 8 April 2010 - 19:53

    Interesting change from the affirmation, “I will do x” to the question, “Will I do x?” I’ll give it a shot. No, that is to say, “Will I give it a shot?”

    • #2 by David Winter on 14 April 2010 - 10:43

      Thanks Dana.
      Will you give us some feedback on how your experiment works out?

  2. #3 by roddaut on 4 June 2010 - 10:07


    Thanks for posting this. I actually just wrote about the same study on my blog and found your post when I was looking up the PDF of the journal article. BTW for other readers out there you can get the actual research article at http://www.psych.illinois.edu/~dalbarra/pubs/Wll%20I%20I%20will.pdf

    And to the question “will I be using this info?” my answer is yes.

    • #4 by David Winter on 6 June 2010 - 07:14

      Thanks Rod. And thank you for the direct link to the article.

      • #5 by roddaut on 6 June 2010 - 07:24

        Glad to be of service David.

  3. #6 by Hilary on 5 August 2010 - 15:00

    Not sure if it’s the same thing, but this reminds me of an (anxious, at the time) conversation I had with a counselor a while ago in which we discussed the nature of anxiety, and the powerful affect mental questions have in determining behaviour and mood. In fact that’s the very nature of anxiety, and what makes it so insidious: “Will I be okay…”, “What will I do if…” “What will happen when…” – and then the brain’s off and running, trying to find answers. Questions really are powerful – it seems that the mind just loves to chomp on them, but I guess the important thing is asking the right question.

    • #7 by David Winter on 5 August 2010 - 17:31

      That’s a really interesting thought. How you phrase a question can have such an impact on how you view your situation.

      In a recent session with junior doctors we were discussing careers outside medicine. One of the doctors asked, ‘So what careers can you get into with a medicine degree?’ I addressed his issue in a long-winded way, but what I should have said was, ‘Uh-uh! Wrong question! What you should be asking is: “How can I find out what careers would be worth the effort of getting into?”‘

      With another client who was looking for ways to escape working as a solicitor, we were discussing a few possible options. He said, ‘Won’t it be difficult for me to get into that area from a law background?’ This time I said, ‘How about we rephrase that question to “What steps would I have to take to fill the gap between what I have to offer now and what it would take to get into that area?”‘ You could see the change in his expression as he changed from thinking about barriers to thinking about goals.

      Any more examples of the power of asking the right question?

  4. #8 by Gill on 5 August 2010 - 19:37

    Yes, I will comment! I think it’s a bit like If you’re a person with a ‘I should do…’ or ‘I must do…’ kind of thought process, it can be very empowering and releasing to ask yourself ‘Should I?’ or ‘Must I?’. Or if you are a bit risk averse but need to take the plunge from time to time ‘Could I?!’. I guess it’s about giving yourself options, which puts you in a nice position, and one of strength. I like this article and think I’ll try out the ‘Will I?’ question – although getting me to go to the gym could require something a bit stronger!

    • #9 by David Winter on 7 August 2010 - 06:58

      Hi Gill
      Perhaps if you need help motivating yourself to go to the gym you should also read this post: Anticipation versus consummation.

      Visualise yourself having just got home from work, feeling tired. You just want to flop on the sofa. It’s raining outside. Then visualise yourself choosing to go to the gym anyway despite all this.

      But of course, you could just ask yourself the question ‘should I?’

  5. #10 by Duncan on 18 September 2010 - 01:16

    As several of the comments have mentioned, asking the right question (and at the right time?) might be important here. Are you aware of whether the findings are robust to mental state? i.e. I could imagine someone in the midst of depression or anxiety finding less benefit in asking a “Will I” (or perhaps a “Can I”) question, than just making an “I will” statement if, in a negative frame of mind, they answer themselves with “no, I won’t”.

    Interesting technique though! (Give it a try… Will I?!)

    • #11 by David Winter on 21 September 2010 - 21:01

      I don’t know if anyone has looked at this issue in people suffering from depression or anxiety.

      Chances are it might make things worse. Depression and anxiety are often linked with excessive rumination, too much interrogative self-talk.

  1. A measure of success « Careers – in Theory

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