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Can’t Shan’t Won’t

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Can’t Shan’t Won’t by Kim Wilson

Summer 2014

In a profession where the language I choose is designed to help people change the way they think it’s good to have some research to back up why it’s so important.

Although many of us may think that semantics are trivial, studies have shown that changing a single word can, not only have a huge effect not only on how we feel but also on what we do.

In a study published in Journal of Consumer Research, 120 students were split into two different groups.

One group was told that each time they were faced with temptation they were to use the words ‘I can’t do X’ for example if tempted by an ice cream they would tell themselves ‘I can’t eat ice cream.

The other group was told to say ‘I don’t do X’ for example if tempted by the same ice cream they would say ‘I don’t eat ice cream’.

After repeating these phrases, all the students were given a set of unrelated questions to complete. As each student left the room they were offered a choice of complimentary treat, either a granola bar or a chocolate bar.

The results showed that 61% of the students who had told themselves ‘I can’t eat X’ chose the chocolate bar. Whereas only 36% of the students who told themselves ‘I don’t eat X’ chose the chocolate.

This one change in terminology significantly improved the odds that each student would make a more healthy food choice.

But this isn’t a fluke the same researchers wanted to discover how the words ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t’ affect our willingness to say no when faced with repeated temptations and distractions.

They designed a new study that asked 30 working women to sign up for a health and wellness seminar. All of the women were asked to think of a long term health goal that was important to them. They were then split into 3 groups.

Group 1 – This group was the control group. Any time they were tempted to slip from their goal they were asked to ‘just say no’.

Group 2 – This group was told that any time they felt they were faltering to employ the ‘can’t’ strategy. For example, ’I can’t miss the gym today.’ Group 3 – This group was told to use the ‘don’t’ strategy instead. For example, ‘I don’t miss my gym sessions.’

For the following 10 days, each woman received an email asking to report her progress.

They were specifically asked, ‘During the 10–day window you will receive emails to remind you to use the strategy and to report instances in which it worked or did not work. If the strategy is not working for you, just drop us a line and say so and you can stop responding to the emails.’

The results supported the original research.

Group 1 – 3 out of 10 participants kept going with their goals for the 10 days

Group 2 – Only 1 out of 10 participants kept going with their goals for the 10 days

Group 3 – In the ‘don’t’ group a huge 8 out of 10 participants persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.

Dont versus Can’t

Words can help create our sense of being empowered and in control. They create a feedback loop that affects our future behaviour.

‘Can’t’ reminds us of our limitations. With ‘can’t’ we are robbed of a choice, we are restricted and feel disempowered. ‘Don’t’ creates a feedback loop that enforces our belief in our own power and control over our behaviour. It gives us back a choice and affirms our determination and empowers us.

How does this help?

‘I can’t’ and ‘I don’t’ are often used interchangeably but psychologically they are very different. They provide different feedback loops and ultimately produce different behaviours.

Words are important and this is just a small example of the behaviour that even changing one word can produce. Next time you ‘can’t’ do something why not try ‘I don’t’ instead and see it make a change in your own life.

“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” Buddha