We all know that critical self-talk can harm our well-being and performance. But surprising research from the University of Illinois* suggests that even self-motivation is not an ideal choice either.
According to scientists Senay, Albarracin and Noguchi we’re better off saying good-bye to positive affirmations and instead start interrogating ourselves.

In their first experiment the three scientists split their study subjects into two groups. Both groups had to solve Anagrams – but before they started the task one group was asked to tell themselves “I will work on anagrams!” while subjects of the other group were instructed to ask themselves the question “Will I work on anagrams?”

This small difference alone – statement vs. question – lead to the question group outperforming the other group significantly in terms of the number of anagrams solved.

Then, in a second series of experiments the study subjects were asked to perform a seemingly unrelated writing task before working on the anagrams.

One group was asked to write, “I will” “I will” “I will” etc.

The second group was asked to write, “Will I” “Will I” “Will I” etc.

This tiny change had a major effect on how the test subjects performed. The “Will I” group solved nearly twice as many anagrams as the “I will” group!

The scientists then went one step further and applied their setup to a real world setting. They asked subjects to either think “I will” or “Will I” respectively, before exercising.

Not only did the question group exceed the suggestion group in terms of consistency and commitment when asked about their intention to exercise, but they also gave very different reasons for wanting to do the training.

The suggestion group mainly reported they were motivated by guilt and feeling ashamed if they didn’t train, while the question group, gave ‘taking responsibility for their health’ as their main motivation.

The conclusion the scientists drew is that self-questioning (as opposed to self-motivation) primes the brain in a way that enhances intrinsic motivation.

When we ask ourselves questions we become more excited and curious about the outcome than when we use commands. We adopt a different attitude towards ourselves – attitude one is forceful and authoritative whereas attitude two is curious and open. Metaphorically speaking we’re bathing our minds in two completely different mood-cocktails – one of pressure versus one of excitement.

Practical implications

The study suggests that we don’t have to be professional coaches to benefit from this self-interrogation effect. The very fact that we’re adapting an open and curious mindset makes a big difference already. But if a simple “yes or no” question as “Will I?” is able to generate such staggering results what are more sophisticated coaching questions capable of?

Here are a few possible real-world applications:

  • You are about to do a presentation – how do you communicate with yourself? Following this research asking questions such as:

“Will I give this presentation?”
“Can I do this?”
“How can I best prepare?”
“What is going to happen?”
“What is my audience like?”
“What messages do I want to convey”? etc.
will put you in a more resourceful state of mind than telling yourself what you should do and giving yourself a self-motivational lecture.

  • If a friend or co-worker approaches you with an issue – it might be more effective not to give advice straight away, but to activate their intrinsic motivation by inquiring into their situation: “What are you trying to achieve?” “What are you worried about?” “Will you do something about this?” etc.
  • The study also challenges the notion of “action planning”. After a development programme participants are often asked to write down actions they commit to taking. In the light of the study it appears to be more advantageous to create and take forward individually crafted questions. (i.e. instead of “I will speak up in meetings at least twice” – “How can I best speak up at meetings?” “What will help me to share my views?” “How can I become better at speaking my mind?”)


This study supports the efficiency of inquiry focused approaches such as coaching and motivational interviewing for positive behavioural change. It also challenges old notions of “self-motivation” and suggests that an internal dialogue of questioning achieves superior results over traditional self-motivation.


*Psychol Sci. 2010 Apr;21(4):499-504. doi: 10.1177/0956797610364751. Epub 2010 Mar 9.

© Ragnar Speicher