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Language & Motivation

From Fragmentary Social Information and Fragmentary Thoughts to Attitudes and Goals Toward Performing Specific Behaviors


Some of my recent work is aimed at understanding how people form specific attitudes and goals based on fragmentary social information and thoughts. We analyzed Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. One conclusion was that people think in a way that has little resemblance to the measures of attitudes, beliefs, or intentions we normally use in research (Albarracin, Noguchi, & Earl, in press). Despite the differences between spontaneous thought and attitude scales, even individuals with very low education levels can report their attitudes and intentions using these scales (Albarracin, Noguchi, & Earl, in press). This divergence encouraged us to study how people translate fragmentary thoughts and social stimuli into coherent, first-person intentions and volitional behavior.


We hypothesized that linguistic propositions emerge when relatively random material in the stream of consciousness is ordered in a way syntactically compatible with a given proposition (Albarracin, Noguchi, & Earl, 2006; Albarracin, Hart, & McCulloch, 2006; Albarracin, Noguchi, & Fischer, 2011). We investigated this possibility by observing how people formed intentions based on the succession of certain words and context. In one study, participants first played the prisoner’s dilemma game and then read a series of words presented on a computer screen one at time. For each word, participants had to state whether or not the word contained the letter m. The series was long and included 5 interspersed synonyms of act (e.g., play) and 5 interspersed synonyms of nice (e.g., fair). In one condition, participants were exposed to theact words, followed by the nice words. In the other condition, participants were exposed to the same words but the nice words preceded theact words.


After the word-detection task, participants played another prisoner’s dilemma game. The prediction was that the implicit proposition act - nice might motivate participants to cooperate because the order suggests an instruction or command. In contrast, the implicit proposition nice - act could be perceived as a compliment, suggesting that participants had already been nice. Thus, this assessment may reduce the perceived need to be nicer on a future game. Supporting these expectations, the act - nice sequence increased cooperativeness from the first to the second game. Correspondingly, the nice - act sequence decreased cooperativeness from the first to the second game. (These effects were not observed when only act or only nice were primed. Thus, the presence of both types of words and their order were key.)


We also assumed that the translation from haphazard streams of consciousness to a coherent discourse depends on social interaction (Albarracin, Noguchi, & Earl, 2006). That is, language is necessary to communicate with others. As a result, the presence of other individuals strengthens people’s ability to develop coherent, first-person intentions. Likewise, adopting an external point of view to observe oneself may increase the chance that the material is syntactically organized. These predictions are being investigated presently.


Other, relatively minuscule linguistic factors influencing cognition and behavior are verb aspect and tense. Some of our studies (Hart & Albarracin, 2009) examined whether describing past actions as ongoing (vs. completed) using the imperfective (vs. perfective) aspect promotes memory for action-relevant knowledge and reenactment of these actions in a future context. In Experiment 1, participants who used the imperfective (vs. perfective) aspect to describe their strategy on a prior interpersonal task were more likely to use this strategy on a later task. Experiment 2 demonstrated that describing behaviors on a task using the imperfective (vs. perfective) aspect increased willingness to resume that task by improving memory for task contents. Experiment 3 found that the effects of the imperfective aspect on memory decayed over time. Experiment 4 showed that the imperfective (vs. perfective) aspect facilitated performance of a future behavior only when the described past behavior was relevant to the future behavior. The last two experiments showed that aspect effects are moderated by memory decay and are behavior-specific (vs. general).


With respect to verb tense, detailed descriptions of a risky behavior written using past vs. present verb tense alters how prior attitudes are used as a basis for intentions, thus indirectly shaping those intentions (Carrera, Munoz, Caballero, Fernandez, & Albarracin, 2012). After reporting their attitudes toward excessive drinking, experimental participants read about an episode of binge drinking that was described using either the past or the present tense. Although intentions were not affected by the verb tense manipulation, prior attitudes more strongly predicted intentions in the past than did the present tense. Moreover, there was less detailed recall of the episode and lower negative emotional experience in the past (vs. present) condition (see also Carrera et al., 2012). We currently continue exploring how the language of our thoughts and intentions shapes behavior.


The Role of Self-Talk in the Regulation of Behavior


Despite clear indication that human beings silently talk to themselves in the course of their daily lives, we lack a socio-cognitive understanding of the conditions and effects of this form of inner speech. Individuals commonly talk to themselves using the first-person pronoun I but they also talk to themselves as if they were speaking to someone else, using the second-person pronoun you.


What are the conditions that elicit the use of the second pronominal person in self-talk? When people covertly discuss their thoughts, goals, choices, plans, and moves, does using the second-person you strengthen performance and commitment to the goal?  Three studies (Zell et al., 2012) examined the conditions under which people talk to themselves as if they are another person, using the metaphor of a splitting or fragmentation of the self. Fragmented self-talk, defined by the use of the second-person you and the imperative, was specifically expected to arise in contexts requiring explicit self-control. Results showed that fragmented self-talk was most prevalent in response to situations requiring direct behavior regulation, such as negative events (Study 1), experiences of autonomy (Study 2), and action as opposed to behavior preparation or behavior evaluation (Study 3). Therefore, in situations requiring conscious self-guidance, people refer to themselves as you and command themselves as if they were another person. The implications of these findings for behavior change are discussed.


We also conducted three experiments comparing the effects of I and you self-talk on goal-fulfillment intentions and intellectual performance (Dolcos & Albarracin, 2013). Experiment 1 showed that merely writing will you as opposed to will I in an ostensibly unrelated handwriting task produced stronger behavioral intentions. Experiment 2 revealed that giving self-advice about a hypothetical social situation using you yielded better anagram task performance than using I. Experiment 3 showed that self-talk using you while preparing for an anagram task enhanced performance more than self-talk using I. This effect was fully mediated by intrinsic motivation to excel at task and perceived task ease.


Both self-talk and social support have been proposed as instruments of self-improvement, often by empowering, action-promoting messages. Two of our recent experiments (Ireland, Dolcos, & Albarracin, 2013) examined whether writing about a personal problem using an action-promoting discourse from a friend’s perspective provides greater motivational and emotional benefits than writing from one’s own perspective. Experiment 1 found that adopting a friend’s perspective while freely writing about a chosen self-control challenge increased intentions to improve self-control by increasing the positivity of emotions (e.g., pride) expected upon reaching that goal. This effect, however, was only present when the writing had a high frequency of words referencing physical (e.g., move) or mental (e.g., conclude) action. Experiment 2 replicated these effects in a sample of individuals typing a standard prompt designed to contain a high percentage of action words.

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