In a series of experiments, dieters who said “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” when offered tempting treats were more likely to choose healthier options or abstain from food completely, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
In “‘I Don’t’ versus ‘I Can’t': When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior,” Vanessa Patrick, Ph.D., of the University of Houston, wanted to examine the power of words on self-control and goals, especially among people trying to get healthier.
She hypothesized that “I don’t” is a more powerful regulator of behavior than “I can’t,” because “I don’t” connotes a firmly entrenched attitude rather than a temporary situation, empowering the person who says it with more will-power and feelings of self-control.
One experiment put a series of hypothetical temptations in front of 120 people and asked them to tell themselves “I don’t” or I can’t” depending on the situation. (For example, at a party, if offered a greasy meatball, you would say “I don’t eat those” or “I can’t eat those.”)
They were then asked to rank their feelings of empowerment and self control. As they were leaving the lab, they were asked to choose between two snacks—an unhealthy candy bar versus a healthy granola bar—provided by the experimenter as a token of appreciation.
The results: twice as many of the “I don’t” responders skipped a snack altogether. And 64% of the participants who said “I don’t” chose the healthy granola snack while 39% of those who said “I can’t” went for the chocolate.
“The finding supports our theorizing that the don’t refusal frame is more empowering and more likely to lead to resistance to temptation than the can’t refusal frame,” says Patrick.
In another experiment, 30 working women between the ages of 22 and 53 were signed up for a 10-day health and wellness program. All were prompted to using the “I don’t” versus “I can’t” refusal strategy when confronted with unhealthy temptations.
The results: 8 of the 10 “I don’ts” followed through the program for a full 10 days, whereas only one of the “I can’ts” (and three of the controls) continued on to the end. This suggests that suggests that saying “I Don’t” increased the participants’ feelings of autonomy and control, greater self-awareness, and positive behavioral change.
While the notion that saying “I don’t” can be an effective self-regulatory strategy and help dieters stick to their goals is an intriguing one, it isn’t proven. But it’s free, easy, and anyone can try it! So altogether now: I DON’T!!