“I don’t” vs. “I can’t”


Many of the pastors participating in our Spirited Life program have had great success on Naturally Slim, a mindful-eating program that we offer them, but they often report that one of the hardest parts of their new lifestyle is saying “no” to sugar. We’re all familiar with the challenge of giving up a vice. Our resolve is strong in the first couple of days or weeks. But slowly, the siren song grows louder and more insistent. It demands a response. What will we say?

Interestingly, it may matter not only whether we say “no,” but also how we say it. A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that people who say “I don’t” in the face of temptation are less likely to capitulate than those who say “I can’t.

As the University of Chicago Press reports,

In four studies [Vanessa M. Patrick (University of Houston) and Henrik Hagvedt (Boston College)] examined the difference between framing a refusal with the words “I don’t” vs. “I can’t.” “This insight is based on the notion that saying “I can’t” to temptation inherently signals deprivation and the loss from giving up something desirable,” the authors write. “For instance, when faced with a tempting slice of pumpkin pie, one’s spontaneous response, ‘I can’t eat pumpkin pie’ signals deprivation. Saying ‘I don’t eat pumpkin pie’ is more effective.” This approach signals to oneself (and others) a sense of determination and empowerment, which makes the refusal strategy more effective.

A group of 30 women were divided up into three different groups. One group was trained in the “I don’t” strategy; another, the “I can’t” strategy; and the third, a generalized, “just-say-no” strategy. These approaches were reinforced everyday with an email reminder, and participants were invited to share instances of success and failure with their assigned strategy.

Here are the researchers’ findings:

The “I don’t” strategy increased participants’ feelings of autonomy, control, and self-awareness; and it resulted in positive behavioral 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.” Saying “I don’t” also led to increased longevity; participants reported using it long after the study was completed.

This is more evidence for the “fake it until you make it” approach to behavior change. Oddly enough, we listen to what we say, and what we hear shapes our behavior. A simple word change seems almost too simple to affect whether we reach our goals, but often the simplest tactics are the most effective.

Tommy Grimm

(Image by flickr user justinhenry /via Creative Commons)

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About Tommy Grimm

I have an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and currently work as a Wellness Advocate with Spirited Life. Born and raised in the heartland of America, I'm a certified Hoosier who loves basketball. I've recently discovered the wonder of beets, and I take guilty pleasure in gas station candy, particularly circus peanuts and spice drops.

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