Whether you want an employee to participate more in meetings, or you want your spouse to pitch in more around the house, you can't force someone to change their behavior.
The best way to have a positive influence on someone is by asking a question that causes another individual to examine their behavior closely.
The Question-Behavior Effect
A study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found the question-behavior effect is the key to behavior change.
This psychological trick involves asking a question about the future to speed up an individual's readiness for change.
For example, if you want your adult child to start investing in his 401(k), you might be tempted to say something, "It's important to invest money for retirement at a young age." But that statement isn't likely to evoke change.
Researchers found you're more likely to see behavior change when you ask a question like, "Are you going to set aside money for retirement?"
Discomfort motivates people to change. And saying, "No," would likely create some slight discomfort for a person who isn't saving any money.
The researchers involved in the study found that asking a question that reminded an individual of their unhealthy choices was effective in motivating them to do something different.
The study concluded that questioning effectively produces consistent and significant change across a wide variety of behaviors. Direct questions influenced people to cheat less and exercise, volunteer, and recycle more.
The key is to ask a question that forces individuals to choose a definitive yes or no answer (as opposed to an open-ended question).
Researchers found the question-behavior effect was effective in person, but it was even more effective when administered via a computer or a paper-and-pencil survey.
Why a Question Leads to Behavior Change
There are several theories about why the question-behavior effect motivates people to change. It's likely that cognitive dissonance plays a role.
Cognitive dissonance is when your ideal self doesn't match up with your real self. So while you may want to be a healthy person, you might not be behaving like a fit, healthy person.
So, when someone asks if you are going to exercise regularly, saying no would create discomfort.
To ease your discomfort in the moment, you're likely to answer a question in a way that affirms your ideal self. Acknowledging your intention increases the likelihood that you'll change your behavior.
Answering a yes or no question--especially on a computer or via pen and paper--doesn't allow for clarification. And in this case, that's exactly what you want.
The person answering the question will likely want to excuse their choices with a statement like, "I have too much going on this month to exercise," or "I want to pay off my car before I start investing in a retirement plan." But, a good yes or no question won't allow room for clarification.
How to Effectively Employ the Question-Behavior Effect
The question-behavior effect can be useful in a variety of circumstances. Here are a few examples:
- Influence your employees. If your employees have become a little too relaxed about showing up to meetings late, send out an email survey that asks, "Are you going to show up for this week's meeting on time?"
- Motivate a family member. If your spouse has been bringing home piles of paperwork from the office, ask, "Are you going to do several hours of work at home every single night?" The key is to ask the question in a gentle, non-sarcastic tone.
- Use it in marketing. Advertisements that ask questions like, "Will this be the year you finally reward yourself for your hard work?" can convince people to buy certain products.
- Public service campaigns. Most people already know the dangers and the benefits of recycling or wearing a seat belt so lectures aren't effective. But asking questions like, "Are you going to vote this year?" or, "Are you going to get your flu vaccine?" makes people confront their beliefs and their behavior, which can lead to positive change.
The next time you're tempted to lecture someone about what they should do differently, try asking a yes or no question instead. You might find it's the simplest, yet most effective way to inspire long-lasting behavior change.