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Two words may help people brush off temptation

March 17, 2012
Courtesy of University of Chicago Press Journals
and World Science staff

Peo­ple who re­sist tempta­t­ion by tell­ing them­selves “I don’t” rath­er than “I can’t” are more suc­cess­ful in their quest, new re­search sug­gests.

“Whether it’s buf­fa­lo wings at a tail­gate or heap­ing plates of calo­ries at the Thanks­giv­ing day din­ner ta­ble that is your down­fall, help is merely a cou­ple of words away,” write Va­nes­sa M. Pat­rick of the Uni­vers­ity of Hous­ton and Hen­rik Hagtvedt pf Bos­ton Col­lege, au­thors of new find­ings pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Con­sum­er Re­search.

In four stud­ies they ex­am­ined the dif­fer­ence be­tween fram­ing a re­fus­al with the words “I don’t” vs. “I can’t.” 

“Say­ing ‘I can’t’ to tempta­t­ion in­her­ently sig­nals de­priva­t­ion and the loss from giv­ing up some­thing de­sir­able,” the au­thors wrote. By con­trast, they ar­gue that “I don’t” sig­nals to one­self and oth­ers a sense of de­ter­mina­t­ion and em­pow­er­ment that works.

In one stu­dy, the au­thors stud­ied 30 wom­en for 10 days. The wom­en were ran­domly as­signed one of three re­fus­al strate­gies: the “don’t” strat­e­gy, the “can’t” strat­e­gy, and a “just-say-no” strat­e­gy. A daily e­mail re­minded the par­ti­ci­pants to use the strate­gies and to re­port in­stances when they worked and when they did­n’t.

The “I don’t” strat­e­gy was found to in­crease par­ti­ci­pants’ feel­ings of au­ton­o­my, con­trol, and self-awareness, and lead to pos­i­tive change. One par­ti­ci­pant re­ported “a re­newed dedica­t­ion to shed­ding those ex­tra pound­s….I bought a used fold­ing bi­cy­cle this week­end that I can keep in my of­fice and use to ride across cam­pus.” The “I don’t” tech­nique al­so ap­peared to have great­er stay­ing pow­er, as par­ti­ci­pants re­porting us­ing it long af­ter the study was com­plet­ed.

“What’s great about this re­search is that it sug­gests a strat­e­gy that is sim­ple, straight­for­ward, and easy to im­ple­ment. And most im­por­tant­ly…it work­s!” the re­searchers wrote.


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People who resist temptation by telling themselves “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” are more successful in that quest, new research suggests. “Whether it’s buffalo wings at a tailgate or heaping plates of calories at the Thanksgiving day dinner table that is your downfall, help is merely a couple of words away,” write Vanessa M. Patrick of the University of Houston and Henrik Hagtvedt pf Boston College, authors of new findings published in the Journal of Consumer Research. In four studies they examined the difference between framing a refusal with the words “I don’t” vs. “I can’t.” “Saying ‘I can’t’ to temptation inherently signals deprivation and the loss from giving up something desirable,” the authors wrote. By contrast, they argue that “I don’t” signals to oneself and others a sense of determination and empowerment that works. In one study, the authors studied 30 women for 10 days. The women were randomly assigned one of three refusal strategies: the “don’t” strategy, the “can’t” strategy, and a “just-say-no” strategy. A daily email reminded the participants to use the strategies and to report instances when they worked and when they didn’t. The “I don’t” strategy was found to increase participants’ feelings of autonomy, control, and self-awareness, and lead to positive change. One participant reported “a renewed dedication to shedding those extra pounds….I bought a used folding bicycle this weekend that I can keep in my office and use to ride across campus.” The “I don’t” technique also appeared to have greater staying power, as participants reporting using it long after the study was completed. “What’s great about this research is that it suggests a strategy that is simple, straightforward, and easy to implement. And most importantly…it works!” the authors wrote.