Don’t, Shouldn’t, Can’t: How refusal framing motivates change

Refusal framing comes down to “I don’t,” “I shouldn’t,” and “I can’t do X.”

Which one is most effective at abstaining from bad habits? And which one most often backfires and causes you to do the thing you’re trying to avoid?

don't shouldn't can't refusing framing Pinterest Pin

(This technique can cover all bad habits.)

Vanessa Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt provide the seminal research on refusal framing.

I’ll boil it down for you.

  • “…framing a refusal using ‘I don’t’ is more psychologically empowering than using ‘I can’t’ and can motivate goal pursuit.”
  • “…empowerment [i]s a feeling of strength and control that in turn may help motivate goal pursuit.”
  • “…the more empowering a refusal frame is the more effective it is in motivating goal-directed behavior.”

And I’ll expand on each word.

Refusal framing as “I don’t”

Patrick and Hagtvedt’s first study involved 120 undergraduates who wanted to eat healthy. The researchers told them to either say “I don’t eat ________” or “I can’t eat ________” when faced with a temptation.

When offered a granola bar or candy bar after filling out a questionnaire, 64% of the “don’t”s chose the granola bar. 39% of the “can’t”s chose it.

“I don’t” is empowering. It appeals to your inner heroic avatar (my site’s theme). See, we try our hardest to live up to who we think we are, positive or negative.

(This is where my third book, Avatar, comes in. But that’s awhile in the future.)

cartoon ninja standing atop a pillar, full moon rising behind him
(Image by Joyjit Chowdhury from Pixabay.)

However, without motivation, past painful experiences, or a relevant goal, “I don’t” has little effect.

In another study, 30 women with long-term health goals used the “don’t” versus “can’t” method for 10 days. And “results revealed that 8 (of 10) participants in the “don’t” condition persisted the full ten days, that is, the entire duration of the study, whereas only 1 (of 10) participant in the “can’t” condition and 3 (of 10) participants in the control condition [just say no] did so.”

The just say no group is interesting. I wonder if it relates to my eat not to dullness post.

Refusal framing determines whether you'll eat that donut you're staring at.

(“I don’t eat junk food, I can’t eat junk food… wait, I shouldn’t combine them.”)

Refusal framing as “I can’t”

“I can’t” works best when you remember you might hurt someone if you indulge. Commitment and accountability also count. Sometimes, you’ll do something for someone no matter how hard it gets, and you’ll find strength you didn’t know you had.

Both negative visualization and imagining a : ( face helps best with this.

Further, “commitment can be empowering because it entails a focus on the goal rather than on impediments or personal limitations.”

One caveat, though: “since the ‘can’t’ framing focuses on resisting the temptation, it may highlight the tempting object more strongly.”

In other words, less “my identity as a moral, upright person” and more “that thing is sinfully good and I must abstain.” With “I can’t,” you risk the forbidden fruit appeal.

Just don’t use “should.”

A woman holds up a stop sign that reads "Stop shoulding yourself"

For me, any sentence with “I should” or “I shouldn’t” ends with an ellipses.

As in, “I shouldn’t watch another episode…” | (“…but it ended on a cliffhanger!”)

There’s some implication of sin or naughtiness if you give in, and that makes you want to do it more. It makes the bad thing sinfully delicious.

And this is how taboos sometimes fail, according to Fershtman et al. They claim that “A taboo has a meaning only if there are potential private benefits attached to deviating from it.”

Plus you can give more power to the object. The more monstrous addiction appears to you, the less obligation you have to change. Since it’s so bad you can’t beat it, right?

See also:
Stop calling it addiction.
(It’s also the subject of my upcoming book, Monstercrafting.)

But as Hamlet reminds us, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

You should do something? Or what?
You shouldn’t do something? Or what?

Instead, Senay et al. (2010) suggest “I will.” “Should” doesn’t imply action, but “I will” switches on your determination to adhere to your identity. And according to cognitive dissonance, it’s mentally painful to claim an identity but act out of accordance with it. You’ll stay in that identity at all costs.

David vs. Goliath - you versus social media
An illustration of David facing Goliath in the battle field. Biblical Series

But you need willpower.

According to Shiv and Fedorikhin, “if processing resources are limited” (you’re low in willpower) you’ll choose chocolate cake over fruit salad when presented with them.

So “don’t,” “can’t,” or “should” might all fail if you don’t have the energy or you’re in a bad mood. Take care of yourself first. The standard stuff: enough sleep, low stress, healthy foods, etc.

Remember HALT?

  • H ungry
  • A ngry
  • L onely
  • T ired

These are the most frequent amplifiers of cravings. There are similar ones, but these are the easiest to identify. If one of them amplifies cravings for you, read my taming lightning article.

sage takes lightning into his body and shoots it out through his fingertips
© Viacom 2005-2008 (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

(Tired is the biggest one for me, hence why I wrote a separate article on emotional exhaustion.)

Conclusion: how to use refusal framing


  • “I don’t do X” is empowering, and empowerment may motivate goal pursuit
  • The more relevant your goal is to your identity, the better “I don’t do X” works
  • You have to feel it, not just say it, so empowerment is a must
  • Relies on internal motivation (just remember your goals)


  • commitment and accountability steer away bad behavior
  • empowerment comes from goal focus, less identity focus
  • might not work in the long run; if you remove the external motivation / blocker, you may return to your vice


  • makes the thing you’re trying to stay away from more appealing and harder to resist
  • …but it may work if you add “because” : “I shouldn’t do X because _________________.” (remember how you’ll feel, or how someone else will if you indulge.)

By the way, I don’t miss a deadline ; )

Don\'t, Shouldn\'t, Can\'t: How refusal framing motivates change

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