In a study described in the Stanford University Center for Social Innovation, all the people involved were asked to perform the same task but some were told it would be impossible for the researchers to know “whether you are cheating,” while others were told it would be impossible to know “whether you’re a cheater”. The first group (who got the instructions referencing “cheating”) cheated far more than the latter group ( who got the instructions referencing being a “cheater”). Similarly, in the recent election season, appeals to citizens to “be a voter” had much more impact on behavior than did exhortations to “vote”.
The choice of wording makes all the difference in the resulting behavior!
What these examples indicate: We act on self-image. In other words we all want to have a positive identity. If you paint people a picture of a undesirable self, they are likely to stop doing the negative action as associated with it. Similarly, if you paint them a positive image of a person, they are likely to adopt the positive behaviors associated with that image. In contrast, people are much less likely to change their behavior if you just describe the behavior in question.
Apply This Finding to be Help People be Fantastic
When trying to influence a change in behavior, describe an identity (nouns), not actions (verbs). For example:
- Speak to people about “being an innovator”, not about innovating.
- Remind someone preparing an important presentation to “be an inspirational speaker”, not to speak inspirationally.
- Set a ground rule that everyone on a team will “be a punctual member”, not that everyone should be on time.
- Tell yourself that today you will be “a paragon of focus”, not that you’ll really try to not be an email-slave
For many years I have used a related approach. There’s no Stanford study behind this one, but here it is anyway: I find that if you treat people as if they were their best selves, they shift their behavior more in that direction. (As you can imagine, this definitely does not work on sociopaths. Consequently, it is a pretty good sociopath diagnostic.)
Have a great day. And remember: Be an Influencer!
Click here for the Article from the Center on Social Innovation.
Click here for the abstract of the actual “cheating/cheater” study.