Are you Dragonborn? The Dangerous Power of Words.


Words are more powerful than you realize:

In Middle Earth, they allow you to open Dwarven doors.

In Skyrim, they allow the Dragonborn to rain tornadoes down up on foes.

In Hogwarts, they allow you to levitate, transform, and even kill.

Here on Earth, what we read, write, and speak each day impacts our life in ways we’ve never imagine.

Your words are working behind the scenes to improve your day or sink your chances at living a better life.

“Here goes crazy Steve again,” you may be thinking. 

Well, as Professor Dumbledore so eloquently states: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”

And that dude is a wizard, so you might want to listen to him.

Today I’m going to show you how something so seemingly trivial can literally change your fate. Let’s look at how the words we use impact our actions, and how you can use this knowledge to kick ass like the Dragonborn.

Words Matter


The idea that your words matter when it comes to decision making isn’t just an idea of our favorite wizard. The “framing effect” is a well studied cognitive bias which demonstrates that people react differently depending on which words you use and how the matter is presented.

  • Should you opt for treatment A or treatment B?
  • Should you grab that donut or go for the bacon and eggs?*
  • Should you support the stance of political party A or B?

[*trick question, you go for ALL of the bacon and eggs]

It should be no surprise that the framing of the pitch for “A” or “B” matters. What is surprisingly is how tiny, seemingly insignificant changes (or simply looking at the same fact from a different angle) can produce wildly different opinions.

Here are some quick examples:

  • 93% of PhD students registered early when a penalty fee for late registration was emphasized, with only 67% doing so when this was presented as a discount for earlier registration.
  • More people will support an economic policy if the employment rate is emphasized than when the associated unemployment rates is highlighted.

In some cases, simply flipping the statement around can have a HUGE impact on whether or not we believe it. In other cases, replacing one word with a synonym, or tinkering with the length of the statement can give people the boost they need.

So how can this help you make smarter diet and exercise choices? Let’s take a look at some great ways to take advantage of this concept.

Moving at the speed of words


John Bargh, a social psychologist at Yale University, ran a study with 30 students from NYU.  He had these 30 students rearrange a set of five random words and tasked them with forming grammatically correct sentences using four of those words.

As pointed out in the book The Art of Choosing: 

“Each of the scrambled sets contained words related to descriptions or stereotypes of the elderly, such as worried, old, gray sentimental, wise, retired, wrinkle, and even bingo and Florida.  Care was taken to exclude any references to slowness, for reasons that will soon become clear.  The other version used sets of words free of any particular association with old age, such as thirsty, clean, and private.

After participants finished the sentence-creation task, which they were told was meant to test their language proficiency, the experimenter thanked them for their involvement and directed them down the hallway to the elevator. As they walked from the doorway of the lab to the elevator, all the participants were secretly observed by a second experimenter who measured the length of time it took them to reach a piece of tape about ten meters down the hallway.

Researchers discovered that on average, those who had constructed sentences using words related to the elderly took roughly 15% longer to reach the elevator than those who had seen the other set of words, even though none of the words either group saw were related to speed.”

Our brains are ridiculously complex, and capable of passing along signals that we’re not even aware of. In this instance, our noggins decided “these words make me think slow, and thus I will connect this with the things I know that are slow. As a result I will tell my body to subconsciously walk slower.”

Now of course, our walking speed can be under our conscious control (choosing to walk fast or walk slow), as can our body language and style of speech. But unless we’re consciously thinking about it, we’ll revert to our automatic subconscious.

What does this mean for us?  What we surround ourselves with has more of an influence on our lives than we originally thought.  The words you read, the people you hang out with, the phrases you use, the environment you put yourself in…all of these things influence how you behave on a day to day basis:

  • Words matter.  Choose the words you use in your vocabulary carefully.  I’m going to cover this more in the next section, but these words will affect how you operate daily: from how quickly you walk, to how you handle problems, to your overall happiness.
  • You are the average of the 5 people you associate the most with.  Surround yourself with negative people who are always complaining, and you’ll do the same.  (Spoiler alert: complaining doesn’t get you any closer to your results.)  Conversely, surround yourself with positive, successful people and subconsciously you will start to find more success and positivity.

I can’t vs I don’t


Did you know that HOW you say “No” has a dramatic effect on your willpower?  Simply changing FOUR letters in how you talk can change how well you’ll be able to stick to your guns and “stay on target.”

When you need to say NO, how do you do it?:

research study divided people into two groups: one group was told that each time they were faced with a temptation, they would tell themselves “I CAN’T do X.” For example, when tempted with ice cream, they would say, “I can’t eat ice cream.”  The second group was told to say “I DON’T do X.” For example, when tempted with ice cream, they would say, “I don’t eat ice cream.”

As each student walked out of the room and handed in their answer sheet, they were offered a complimentary treat. The student could choose between a chocolate candy bar or a health bar. As the student walked away, the researcher would mark their snack choice on the answer sheet.

The students who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time. Meanwhile, the students who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bars only 36% of the time.

This simple change in terminology significantly improved the odds that each person would make a healthier choice.  Think about that.  Just FOUR letters changed, and yet 50% of people had better “willpower!”

We spend our lives saying things like “I wish I had more willpower” and “I wish I could do what I know I need to do. I guess I just lack the personal strength to make those decisions.”

Willpower can be earned!  When you say things like “I can’t eat that,” your brain is telling your body: “I really really really want this thing, but you can’t have it.”  Sure enough, what does your body start to crave?  THAT ONE THING YOU CAN’T HAVE!  This is just one more decision throughout your day that you need to make, which can lead to decision fatigue.

Compare this to another situation: “I don’t eat these things. I don’t do that activity.”  

Instead of it being about you withholding something from your body (that you will then crave), you instead make it about your identity.  When you “can’t do” something, it’s like your parents just told you that you can’t have candy. Instead, when you “don’t” do something, the hard part’s over — the decision is already made and now it’s who you are. Your brain and body are working together.

“This is something I don’t do. Moving on.”  You are empowering yourself with your decision.

Stop using “I can’t.” Instead, make your decision identity based. Use “I don’t.”

Gratitude and attitude


Want to be happier?  Write it down.  This journal or diary of gratitude will become your Book of Mudora, opening doors for you that previously remained closed.

In a study I discovered through Eric Barker:

The effect of a grateful outlook on psychological and physical well-being was examined. In Studies 1 and 2, participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 experimental conditions (hassles, gratitude listing, and either neutral life events or social comparison); they then kept weekly (Study 1) or daily (Study 2) records of their moods, coping behaviors, health behaviors, physical symptoms, and overall life appraisals. In a 3rd study, persons with neuromuscular disease were randomly assigned to either the gratitude condition or to a control condition.

The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

Just by writing down and focusing on the things you should be grateful for and thankful for will INCREASE YOUR HAPPINESS.  And let’s be honest, at the end of the day, isn’t that all we really want? To be happy?

Try this:  Create a gratitude journal.  Use Evernote, a word doc, a note pad, a leather-bound book, and keep a record of a few things that went right that day, and why they went right.  Use the hard hat technique if you struggle with building that new habit.

Affirmations FOR THE WIN?


As we already know, not all words are created equal, and neither are affirmations.

Despite what every self help book will tell you, there is evidence that the wrong kind of affirmations can actually have a negative effect on people with low self-esteem, and only a marginal positive effect on people who have high self-esteem:

The researchers asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement–but only slightly.

In a follow-up study, the psychologists allowed the participants to list negative self-thoughts along with positive self-thoughts. They found that, paradoxically, low self-esteem participants’ moods fared better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

Now, that doesn’t mean that affirmations can’t be helpful.   I believe that affirmations that reinforce the good qualities that we hope to have when it comes to health and fitness can be very beneficial.

In another study, it was shown that self-affirmation interventions can successfully influence health-promoting behaviors.

Try this: Remind yourself to think healthy by surrounding yourself with positive affirmations and phrases that remind you of your new identity.  Doing things like reading Nerd Fitness articles (WINK!) hanging out with positive people on the Nerd Fitness message boards) CAN help you make better decisions throughout the day.  

Why?  Because they can help you limit the amount of willpower and decisions you you need to make each day, setting yourself up for success.

Write phrases on post-it notes and put them in the right places so you always see them:

  • I am never late to a meeting.
  • I work out three days a week.
  • I floss my teeth every morning.

Now, once you have these messages laid out, you are still required to take action.  As The Shawshank Redemption tell us, “hope is a good thing,” but Andy still needed to crawl through the sewer in order to find his freedom.  

You might not need to crawl through sewage, but in order for you to find your new identity, you need to use these positive affirmations to take action and build those new habits.

Words are power

harry potter wand

I’ve already talked at length on this site about the danger of “I don’t have time,” because that phrase is a big fat lie.  

I even talk about the importance of creating identity based goals using the proper terminology:

Saying “I should lose weight” or “I really need to do _____” is a losing proposition.  Instead, start saying things like: “I am somebody who eats right.”  “I am somebody who works out four times per week for 15 minutes.”  “I am somebody who doesn’t drink soda.”

By saying these things in the positive, present, identity based phrase, you are telling your body: “This is just who we are now.”  As you prove these things to yourself with small tiny wins, you constantly reinforce this new behavior and identity to yourself, which then allows you to complete that task again  with even less effort.  The more you win, the easier it becomes, which gives you more wins.

So, go forth, Dragonborn.  Remove these words and phrases of evil from your vocabulary.

  • Should
  • Can’t
  • Don’t have time

These words negatively reinforce bad behavior, get used as excuses, and make you think about the very things you are trying to avoid.

Instead, replace them with words and phrases that empower you and help reinforce your new powerful identity:

  • I am somebody who [small habit that you are trying to build]
  • I am [identity you are working towards.
  • I don’t [participate in unhealthy activity].

Make sure you are surrounding yourself daily with the right words and people.  Each night, write down the things that went right and why the went right.

The pen is mightier than the sword when it comes to a better life.  Yes, the words you say to yourself, the words you read, and the words spoken to you by others can have a significant effect on the daily decisions you make.

Small changes over time can create dramatic results.  Small words are capable of shaping the course of history.

So speak wisely.  

And read carefully.

Your future depends upon it.


PS: If you completed your hard hat challenge for the month of September, email us at with your photo of your completed calendar!


photo source: dragon, journal, Gandalf, scrabble, Harry Potter Wand, think, scroll

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    63 thoughts on “Are you Dragonborn? The Dangerous Power of Words.

    1. Regarding saying “I don’t” vs “I can’t” I have found that in social situations, if you say something like, “Thanks for the offer [of holiday cookies, office birthday cake, end-of-the-day-happy-time candy, etc], but I don’t eat sweets,” people tend to criticize you and your lack of willingness to participate in the festivities and share in the “spirit” of whatever is being celebrated. This causes interpersonal issues and you end up being shut out of these social situations in the future because people don’t want to be around your “negativity”. If you use the phrase, “Thanks for the offer, but I can’t eat sweets,” people assume you have a health condition and they feel sorry for you, and don’t think you’re just being an ass. At least, that’s what’s happened to me.

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    5. I am currently a student studying occupational therapy. In my Mental Health Lab, I am running a group session on life goals and operant conditioning for my peers and am using this article as a reference. I’m hoping for others to learn to set realistic goals and create “goal statements” and to be accountable for daily positive and negative reinforcements and punishments we “welcome” into our lives. Thank you for this wisdom, I think it will help many college students!

    6. I used positive affirmations in my journey from low self-esteem and low self-worth to a place of pretty damn good self-image. It works. There are caveats of course. I didn’t rely on just affirmations. I had therapy, support groups, healing exercises, mentors and a supportive community to make small little changes day by day. But I used affirmations big time after reading a couple of books, one on mindfulness and one on the neuroplasticity of the human brain. I decided to reprogramme my brain. A couple of ideas stood out to me. “I am lovable” works better than “I am a lovable person”, or “I forgive myself for all my imperfections” versus “I am a perfectly imperfect person”. Why? The latter is a limited/judgemental sort of statement. I once had a mentor who told me saying that something is good is also a judgement. Judgement happens when we view something as good or bad. It is limited because how good or bad something is has already been decided. Rather than frame it as “I did XX, which is bad”, it’s really about “I DuD Xx, which leads to YY consequence”. Cause and effect. Not good or bad.

      Another idea was… I thought a particular way about myself because of years of conditioning (33 years at that time). If I wanted to reprogramme my brain and feed it different messages, I accept that it may take 33 years it longer to change the neural pathways in my brain cells. Plus I probably need a high dosage of it daily. So I repeated affirmations at least 10 or 20 times, day after day. I did it before going to bed, as and when I needed a boost, I journalled and wrote it out, I meditated on them, I said them looking at myself (my eyes) in the mirror. It actually didn’t take 33 years. About 2, 3 years later, I woke up one morning still sleepy and foggy, and my brain was just regurgitating at me “I love you, I love you, I love you”. It seemed that my brain has been trained enough to feed me positive affirmations when I’m feeling a little more stressed or in need of comfort, before I’m even aware of it myself. Now 11 years after first using affirmations, my brains feels them to me automatically. When I hear affirmations in my head, that’s when I realise I might be feeling insecure, scared, doubtful or unloved.

      I love Nerd Fitness articles because a lot of the content is built on taking small actions every day that may not show any results in the short term. It’s a lifelong journey, a marathon, not a sprint.

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