How To Say “No” To Temptations

Saying no is hard

Some people have a tough time saying “no.” They don’t just struggle to say no to other people, but to their own distractions and temptations. Here’s how to change that.

Think In Empowering Terms

Is it that you can’t waste time on Facebook or that you don’t do it? The slight difference in perspective between can’t and don’t makes a monstrous difference in results. Here’s an example to explain why:

  1. What does a child say to his friend when he isn’t allowed to spend the night? “Sorry, I can’t sleep over tonight.”
  2. What does a non-smoking adult say when offered a cigarette? “No thanks, I don’t smoke.”

The child from #1 is not in control of his situation. The adult is.

Consider that “can’t” is more of an appeal to authority than a personal decision to change. Like in the child’s case, he wants to sleep over, but he can’t because his parents said so. When an adult tries this “can’t strategy” and they realize that they are the decision-maker, it’s really easy to break that rule.

There’s science too. Vanessa Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt analyzed how differently these two terms impact our behavior in a study 1. They gathered 120 students and asked them to quantify their desire for healthy eating (1-9 scale). Some students were told to use “I don’t do X” and others “I can’t do X” to combat temptation to eat unhealthy snacks.

After this, participants were moved to an unrelated study, and once they handed in their questionnaire from that, they were offered a chocolate bar or healthy granola bar. I’m not a big fan of this decision because most granola bars aren’t actually healthy. While I’m sure they were healthier than a chocolate bar, a piece of fruit would be a better fit as a healthy snack, though maybe this would have been too obvious and risked compromising the study results, which were quite interesting.

Healthier granola bars were chosen by 64% of the don’t group and 39% of the can’t group (and the inverse % chose chocolate bars). I found it interesting that 6 of the don’t group and 3 of the can’t group did not accept either bar. They didn’t include these 9 students in the results. My interpretation is that twice as many in the don’t group turned down the bars because, like me, they didn’t see the granola bars as a health food. 

The reason “don’t” works so much better is because it’s identity-based, rather than a superficial attempt to control your behavior. In the study conductors’ words:

“Since the “don’t” frame suggests a stable and unchanging stance that invokes the self (“this is who I am”), it is more effective when goal focus is internal and related to the self (I don’t eat fast-food), but it decreases in effectiveness when related to an external cause (I don’t 15 eat fast food till the wedding). On the other hand, a “can’t” frame which implicitly suggests some barrier that prevents action is more effective when related to an external cause (“I can’t eat fast food till the wedding) versus an internal cause (“I can’t eat fast food because this is who I am”).”

The takeaway: identity-based decisions EMPOWER you; following baseless rules of a “should/can’t” nature WEAKEN you. Stop saying you can’t do things, and take control by saying you don’t do them. I’ve been trying it. I’m impressed by how much more control I’ve had over distractions and temptations. 

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