Do you struggle with temptation? Is it hard to resist those cookies, or that Netflix TV show instead of working out? One study discovered a very simple way to significantly reduce lapses in willpower.
How to Resist Temptation:
The study divided participants into 2 groups: the “don’t” and the “can’t” group. Participants in the “don’t” group rehearsed saying “I don’t eat X” every time they were offered a food they were trying to avoid. For example, they rehearsed saying “I don’t eat candy.” The “can’t”group, meanwhile, rehearsed saying “I can’t eat X.” For example, they would say “I can’t eat candy.” The participants then performed a task that was unrelated to the study. The last part was key though. As they walked out participants were asked to choose between 2 snacks on their way out: a chocolate candy bar or a granola health bar. The researchers found that 64% of people in the “don’t” group chose the granola bar, while only 39% in the “can’t” group did. That’s a 15% difference!
An additional study tested to see if this strategy works in the real world. Participants attended a seminar on long-term health improvement and were asked to choose a health goal to improve over the following 10 days. Participants, once again, rehearsed either “I don’t do X” or “I can’t do X.” 8 of the 10 participants in the “don’t” group made it all 10 days, while only 1 out of 10 in the “can’t” group did.
It makes sense that this would work. Saying “I don’t” involves your identity and makes it harder to budge. While saying “I can’t eat cookies” isn’t even a true statement. The researchers noted, “saying ‘I don’t do X’ connotes a firmly entrenched attitude rather than a temporary situation, and it emphasizes the personal will that drives the refusal.
Furthermore, “I can’t” is negative in that it focuses you on your limitations, while “I don’t” focuses you on your positive, proactive choice.
If you’re trying to stop doing something, telling yourself and others that you “don’t do X” is superior to saying “I can’t do X.” If you’re trying to temporarily stop due to an external reason, then saying “I can’t do X” does makes sense by the way. For example, you would say “I can’t eat cookies because I’m trying to lose weight for the wedding.” Nevertheless, it’s amazing how just changing 1 word can make such a big difference!
Patrick, Vanessa M., and Henrik Hagtvedt. ““I Don’t” versus “I Can’t”: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior.” Journal of Consumer Research 39.2 (2012): 371-381.