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‘Ask, Don’t Tell’ Approach Key to Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

Assistant Professor of Marketing Ioannas Kareklas and colleagues examined the 'question-behavior effect,' a phenomenon in which asking people about performing a certain behavior influences whether they do it in the future.

ALBANY, N.Y. (December 30, 2015) -- A simple technique may offer a game-changing way to enact lasting change for people who want to positively influence their own or others' behavior.

Utilizing more than 40 years of data, marketing researchers from the University at Albany, University of California, Irvine, the University of Idaho, and Washington State University have found that asking about positive behavioral changes (“will you exercise?” or “will you recycle?”) as opposed to telling/instructing has a long-term impact in many areas of life.

Published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the report is the first comprehensive look at more than 100 studies examining the "question-behavior effect," a phenomenon in which asking people about performing a certain behavior influences whether they do it in the future. The effect has been shown to last more than six months after questioning.

UAlbany Assistant Professor Ioannis Kareklas
Assistant Professor of Marketing Ioannis Kareklas

Their meta-analysis showed there may be several reasons why asking about a certain behavior can positively influence a person's chances of doing that behavior in the future, said co-author Ioannis Kareklas, an assistant professor of marketing at UAlbany’s School of Business.

"We're seeing the effect last well beyond six months, where you ask someone a question one time and months later, it is still influencing their behavior — even a one-time exposure to the question — the vast majority of literature shows," said Kareklas.

The study analyzed the various explanations of the question-behavior effect discussed in the literature as following one of four general perspectives: attitudes, consistency, fluency, and motivation. While fluency- and attitude-based perspectives showed only modest reinforcement, greater support was provided for the motivation-based view of the effect, which suggests that questioning leads individuals to form an intention, which then motivates them to perform the behavior in the future.

The researchers found the greatest support was for consistency-based theoretical predictions. The most popular of the consistency theories suggests that the question-behavior effect is based on a desire to reduce cognitive discomfort that is created by the question.

"Hence, the findings strongly suggest multiple theoretical mechanisms at play — primarily motivation and a drive for consistency — perhaps less so by fluency and attitudes," concluded Kareklas.

The question-behavior effect has been shown to be an effective technique for influencing a wide variety of behaviors, including:

  • Registering to vote and voting in elections;
  • Influencing consumer purchases;
  • Reducing cheating in college;
  • Impacting risky behaviors among adolescents;
  • Increasing exercise and other health-related behaviors;
  • Increasing recycling;
  • Reducing implicit gender stereotyping; and
  • Increasing charitable donations of time and money.

The findings offer guidance to social marketers, policy makers and others seeking to impact human behavior.

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