“Say no to drugs.”
We’ve all heard those words. Whether it was from our parents, our teachers or TV advertisements. However, saying “no” to temptations – whether they be as serious as drugs or as simple as an extra slice of cheesecake – isn’t that easy.
But is it possible that there is a way to say “no” that makes it more likely that we will be able to resist the temptation?
They separated the students into two groups. Both groups were self-proclaimed dieters with the intentions of cutting out sweets. They were both offered Hershey’s kisses and asked to resist the temptation to eat them overnight. One group was given the instruction to resist by saying “I can’t eat chocolate” and the other was given the instruction to say, “I don’t eat chocolate”. Then they were supposed to bring back the same Hershey’s kisses the next day to prove that they had indeed resisted the temptation (the researchers marked the kisses to ensure that nobody cheated by bringing in different ones).
The next day, only 39% of those who said, “I can’t eat chocolate” were able to resist the temptation. While 62% of those who said “I don’t eat chocolate” were able stay strong! This experiment has been repeated many times over with different age groups and temptations and always yields similar results. The bottom line, saying “I don’t” works almost twice as well as saying “I can’t”!
WHY “I DON’T” WORKS BETTER THAN “I CAN’T”
There are several reasons that saying “I don’t” works better than “I can’t” and they are all about your identity. Think about what you’re really saying when you use, “I can’t”. You’re saying that you would eat the chocolate, but there is some outside reason that is preventing you from indulging. It doesn’t matter if that outside reason is an experiment or a diet plan, you see it as some factor that is preventing you from having what you really want.
However, when you say, “I don’t” you are identifying as someone who doesn’t eat chocolate. You’re no longer identifying as a person who deep down really wants chocolate, you’re now sending the message that you’re someone who simply doesn’t eat chocolate. By using this language, there are 3 messages sent to your brain that help you resist the temptation.
1. You have control over your own decisions.
You’re sending an empowering message to your brain that you are not imprisoned by outside factors. You have control over yourself and what you do.
2. You identify with the person you want to be.
Whether your goal is to eat healthier, to read a book or to exercise more, by using empowering language like “I don’t” you’re sending the message that you identify with the person you want to become more than the person that you are right now. You’re sending the message that “I’m a person who eats healthy, so I don’t eat chocolate.”
3. You won’t just achieve, you will become.
The best finding in this study wasn’t from the initial ability to say no, it was from a 9-month follow-up with the participants. Those who used the “I don’t” language were not only able to resist the temptation up front, but they were much more likely to stick with their weight loss! 
When you say, “I can’t”, even if you summon the willpower to resist every temptation during your diet, as soon as that diet is over you’re going to give in. Your plan is over now, so bring on the chocolate! Whereas people who say, “I don’t” aren’t just sticking to a goal that will eventually be achieved, they are becoming the person they want to become. And that will last far longer than a 90-day diet or workout plan ever will.
“What you achieve by reaching your goals isn’t as important as who you become by reaching your goals.” – Zig Ziglar
Whenever we set goals, we see a before and after picture in our heads. We see who we are now, we see who we want to be, and then we set a plan to bridge the gap. The more that we can identify with the person we see in that after picture, the more likely we will be able to not only achieve the goal, but stick with it. Simply using empowering language like “I don’t eat chocolate”, “I don’t miss deadlines” or “I don’t skip workouts” can have dramatic effects on our ability to identify with our “after picture” selves. And if we can act like the person we want to be, we are well on our way to actually becoming them!
- Patrick, Vanessa M., and Henrik Hagtvedt. "“I Don’t” versus “I Can’t”: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior." Journal of Consumer Research 39.2 (2012): 371-81