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This super-simple step increases chance that change becomes a habit
Research suggests that people who want to make a change in their behavior can do one very easy thing to make the change stick. - photo by Lois M. Collins
A simple strategy may improve the chance that a desired behavior will stick, according to a multi-university study that suggests asking a question is more effective than making a declaration when it comes to developing habits or bringing resolutions to fruition.

Someone who wants to start an exercise regimen in earnest should consider asking themselves something along the lines of "Will you exercise this year?," according to the study, published recently in The Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Marketing researchers at the University of California Irvine, State University of New York at Albany, University of Idaho and Washington State University did a comprehensive review of dozens of studies on the so-called "question-behavior effect," which basically shows that asking a question about the wished-for behavior "influences whether they do it in the future," according to a release accompanying the study.

It's a phenomenon that has been documented for decades, it can be used to influence one's own positive behavior or that of others and its effects are believed to last more than six months after the question is asked, the release said.

One of the authors, Dave Sprott, senior associate dean of the Carson College of Business at Washington State University, told Fast Company's Stephanie Vozza that "questions remind a person of prior failures to perform a behavior, as well as social norms associated with the behavior. The disconnect between what you have done and what you know you should do elicits dissonance, which in turn leads to a behavioral response."

There's a right way to form the questions, though. Vozza explained that the effect is strongest when the questions are designed to influence behavior in a positive direction "with personal and socially accepted norms." Her examples are healthy eating, helping others and recycling. She also noted that questions that can be answered simply with "yes" or "no" elicit a stronger response.

The researchers said that a question like "Will you recycle?" increases recycling because it reminds someone that recycling is a good thing to do and it may "make them feel uncomfortable" if they're not personally doing it, thus prompting the changed behavior.

The technique can change personal behavior and can even, perhaps, influence consumer action, according to the authors. According to the report, the question-behavior effect works best when no time frame (I'll do it tomorrow) is attached. They also said the effect is strongest "when questions are administered via a computer or paper-and-pencil survey."

So instead of telling your kid not to drink and drive, ask "will you drink and drive?" And if you're not getting enough sleep, ponder this question: "Will you get seven hours of sleep a night?"

It could happen.