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Want To Make A Change? Focus On Stopping, Not Starting

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Did you know that focusing on taking action is counterproductive to motivating healthy behavior, and that action words actually make us more likely to select immediate rewards and lead to poorer impulse control? Well, it turns out that the incentives we attach to those actions – whether we are focusing on taking action or inhibiting action – also matters too.


In 35 experimental sessions performed at the London School of Economics, (LSE), researchers tested 353 people in a variety of situations to determine just which incentives have a lasting effect on promoting healthy behavior. In one experiment, for example, participants were invited to watch a series of videos while eating as many jelly beans as they liked. Halfway through the videos, however, researchers introduced two forms of incentives: one that encouraged participants to eat the sweets and one that encouraged them not to eat the sweets. In keeping with comparison, a third group watched the videos without any incentive at all. The researchers then repeated the experiment two days later, only this time none of the participants received incentives.


The question they were asking is which incentive – to eat the jelly beans or not eat them – will have a lasting effect? The answer is something that, at this point, we can probably guess. Although both groups were offered the same monetary incentive – the equivalent of just over four dollars – the group that was encouraged to not take action ate significantly less jelly beans in the trial two days later where no monetary incentive was offered (Dolan,, 2015).


And the reason, has to do with how we interpret those incentives. Encouraging someone to take action – such as eat the jelly beans – is generally perceived as a positive message. On the other hand, encouraging someone to stop taking action (or avoid doing something) – like avoiding eating jelly beans – is perceived as a negative message. And when comparing the two, it’s the negative messages that tend to have a lasting value – that is, they sink in more and last longer.


In the words of Matteo M Galizzi, an ESRC Future Research Leader Fellow and Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE, and one of the authors of the research: “Our findings are consistent with the idea that people find negative messages easier to retain than positive ones. Even though we only paid participants not to eat the jelly beans for five minutes, we seem to have primed them with the notion that not eating sweets is something good and this effect was still in play several days later.”



The problem, however, is that when it comes to making changes, incentivizing ourselves toward taking action is exactly what most of us do. In fact, most gym programs encourage, “getting a fresh start”, “springing into action”, and “getting a jump on summer” – all phrases that may allure us in the short term, but are not likely to lead to lasting results. Perhaps a better way is simply to focus on not doing the things we know we shouldn’t do, such as, speeding, texting while driving, making impulse purchases or dietary decisions, criticizing, blaming, and passing judgment. We’d probably not only make some successful changes, but be a whole lot happier for it.




Dolan, P., Galizzi, M., Navarro-Martinez, D. (2015). Paying people to eat or not to eat? Carryover effects of monetary incentives on eating behaviour. Social Science & Medicine, 2015; 133: 153


Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, just visit

Want To Make A Change? Focus On Stopping, Not Starting

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). Want To Make A Change? Focus On Stopping, Not Starting. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Apr 2016
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