Modell i damkappa | Model in women's coat

“I don’t talk to strangers and I don’t eat candy.” Firm refusals make it easier to stay out of trouble.

A simple little change in phrasing can save us from the most alluring temptations.  The Journal of Consumer Research recently published an article that found when women who were offered chocolate said “I don’t,” they were more likely to refuse the treat than women who said, “I can’t.”  The women, who participated in surveys and lab experiments, also reported feeling more empowered, more in-control, and more self-aware.

The study’s findings go right along with what we already know about choosing.

We make decisions everyday that define and reinforce who we are. According to choice expert Sheena Iyengar, the choices we make are made to keep us at even keel, to keep us in cognitive consonance with the person we believe we are at the core.  Our belief that we have an innate  character which guides us through life is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we’re faced with a decision, however simple or complex, we think of how it fits into who we’ve been in the past.

For instance, when we’re choosing one of the 50 gazillion kinds of breads, we could be happy with many of them by taste alone.  However, once our inner dialogue gets going, we whittle away options with how they fit into our definitions. I am a healthy person, so I don’t want unhealthy bread.  I eat sandwiches, so I will get a sandwich sized bread.  Mom always bought this brand, so I get the same brand.

So, when we put these ideas together, we are left with a powerful behavior regulator.  If we say to ourselves and others, “We don’t eat white bread,” we reinforce our idea of ourselves as a non-white bread eaters. If we say, “We can’t eat white bread,” we reinforce our idea of ourselves as white bread eaters who aren’t eating white bread.

While the wording test was secluded to healthy eating, I’m anxious to try it out in other avenues.

What would happen if instead of saying to ourselves, “I shouldn’t talk to him” or “I can’t talk to him anymore,” we said “I don’t talk to guys like that” or “I don’t go for jerks.”  What if we made whatever we wanted part of our identity? I don’t let my apartment become unorganized. I don’t drive a dirty car. I don’t work where I’m not valued. I don’t drink alone. I don’t have friends that are jerks. I don’t miss a day of workout…it’s just not me. 

Some friends and I are making a deliberate effort to change our wording and thinking on those troublesome areas of our lives to test the new theory.  As the holidays near and our lives seem to always get more chaotic, we may be able to counter with the consistency that comes from our new found convictions.