“Don’t” Instructions vs. “Do” Instructions – Is One Really Better Than the Other?

Stop teasing your sister!

Don’t jump on the coffee table!

I think I read in a parenting book once upon a time that psychologically-savvy parents tell their kids what to do, instead of what not to do. But I must admit that I occasionally catch myself doing the un-savvy thing and telling the kids what not to do.

Because sheesh, when I’m preoccupied with the chili on the stove, keeping the dog out of the garbage, and trying to make sense of an article I’m reading, it’s so much easier to say “hey – that thing you’re doing, stop it!”

But does such cognitive laziness come at a cost? Especially when it comes to motor skills and performance?

A test of avoidant instructions

A team of researchers recruited 28 golfers for a study on putting performance – 14 “high-skilled” golfers (mean handicap of 5.5), and 14 “low-skilled” golfers (mean handicap of 21.1).

After a quick warmup, the golfers performed 3 sets of 10 putts, each with a different set of instructions.

In the first set of 10 putts, the golfers were simply instructed to make as many putts as possible.

In the second set of 10, the golfers were instructed to make the putt – but to be careful not to miss to either the right or left (some golfers were told not to miss to the right; others to the left), as follows:

“One of the most common mistakes an expert golfer can make when attempting a left-to-right putt is to miss the putt to the [left/right] of the hole. Your goal is to putt the ball and try and make it land in the hole, but be careful not to miss the putt to the [left/right]; don’t miss the putt to the [left/right].”

The instructions didn’t change much in the third set of 10, except with the addition of the word “remember.” As in, “Remember, your goal is to…”

So what do you think – did the “don’t” instructions cause more misses? And would there be any difference between the higher-skill and lower-skill golfers?

High skill vs. low skill

The researchers were curious about putting accuracy, of course, and whether the golfers would miss in the same or opposite direction to which they were instructed. But they were also interested in any changes to their swing kinematics. The timing of their swing, the path of their swing, the alignment of the face of the putter, the point of impact, and so on.

As far as shot accuracy goes, all golfers, regardless of skill level, tended to overcompensate. Meaning, if a golfer was told to avoid missing to the right, they missed to the left instead. In much the way that if you tell a student not to play too fast, their reaction will probably be to play too slow, for instance.

But here’s the interesting thing. The avoidant (a.k.a. “don’t”) instructions did not seem to affect the high-skilled golfers all that much. Their putting score after the “do” instructions (42.4) was about the same as their score after the “don’t” instructions (43). Their swing mechanics and timing remained stable too.

It was a very different story however, for the low-skilled golfers.

For one, their putting accuracy scores got worse, going from 38.2 in response to the “do” instructions (make the shot) to 35 for the “don’t” instructions (don’t miss to the right/left).

In addition, there were significant disruptions to the mechanics of their putting strokes after being given “don’t” instructions as well. For instance, their swings – both the backswing and forward swing – slowed down. Seemingly becoming more deliberate, hesitant, tentative, and controlled. Where instead of trusting in their strokes and ability, they appeared to exert too much conscious control over their putt, which is one of the likely culprits in “choking” under pressure.

What did the better golfers do differently?

So why weren’t the higher-skilled golfers affected by avoidant instructions? And how did they manage to maintain a more consistent level of performance?

The authors propose a few reasons, among them, that the better golfers may have been better able to focus on simply making the putt as opposed to trying not to miss. Like the trick to walking through a crowd without bumping into anyone or having to engage in the awkward “I’ll go this way, you go that way” dance.

It’s also possible that they were better able to trust the effectiveness of their stroke and simply hit the ball, instead of making significant conscious mechanical adjustments (which often end up being more disruptive anyway).

But it’s important to note that the golfers weren’t under any particular pressure in this particular study. If they had been, I suspect that the higher-level golfers’ performance may have dropped a notch or two in response to the “don’t” instructions as well.

So what can we take away from all of this?


Takeway #1: Don’t use don’t (most of the time)

Especially when teaching, coaching, or conducting younger or less experienced musicians, it seems like it would be best to avoid “don’t” directives like “don’t rush” or “don’t use too much bow” or “don’t play too loud.” We’re probably going to get closer to what we want by saying “hold the tempo steady” or “slow down your bow” or “aim for a nice mezzo forte.”

Takeaway #2: When to use don’t (sometimes)

That being said, I think strategic use of avoidant instructions could potentially be a helpful training tool when preparing for performances. How so?

Well, under pressure, even the best of us are liable to think “don’t crack the high note…don’t crack…don’t crack…and…$#&*!”

So what we need to be able to do when the troll who lives inside our head rears its ugly head, is:

  1. Catch ourselves thinking a performance-sabotaging thought
  2. Redirect our mind to more task-relevant and performance-enhancing thoughts, with strategies like quiet eye or a distal external focus

The authors call this “metacognitive training.”

And perhaps by asking a friend or teacher to shout out what not to do at strategic moments as we play, we can train ourselves to keep our minds focused on (and get) what we want, rather than what we don’t.

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9 Responses

  1. Hi! Thank you for this interesting article … as far as it went. 🙂 This was one rare, rare disappointment for not fully addressing the promise of the title. Maybe I read too fast, so it seemed that this was all “don’t” with no “do”. Where are the studies on the benefits of “do” instructions?

    Negative feedback is a hot button topic for me from the world of Argentine tango. We see it everywhere all the time, of course. I like your characterization of “cognitive laziness”. It seems more difficult to identify what you (or a student) *want* instead of immediately pointing out, “Don’t do that!” In my mind the avoidant instructions *highlight* what you *don’t* want (“Don’t think of a pink elephant.”), they are double negatives and thus harder to understand (“Don’t do that UNdesirable thing.”), and they don’t create understanding for the motivation behind the “do” thing.

    It seems that “don’t” instructions are a form of aversion therapy, which can be useful, after a fashion. We’re said, in simplest terms, as biological mechanisms to either avoid pain or seek pleasure. I like to avoid the easier, short term pay off of negative instructions, for the richer understanding of “do” instructions, which I feel produce greater results. AND, I’d love to see studies contrasting the two approaches.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for the note! And you’re totally right – I didn’t flesh things out very clearly.

      I’ll go through and make a few edits in a moment, but here’s the gist:

      The first block of 10 putts were the “do” instructions (make the shot). And this was contrasted with the second and third block of putts, which were the “don’t” instructions (don’t miss to the left/right). While the high-skilled golfers maintained performance across all three groups, the lower-skilled golfers performed more poorly on the second and third blocks of putts in response to the “don’t” instructions. Scores were 42.4 (do) vs. 43 (don’t) for high-skilled golfers, and 38.2 (do) vs. 35 (don’t) for the lower-skilled golfers, with higher scores indicating better performance.

      Indeed, much as you describe in your comment, previous research suggests that negative or avoidant instructions take more attentional resources to process, and that one of the problem with such “don’t” instructions is that in order to really process the meaning of these instructions, we first have to generate the positive equivalent.

      This is one of the reasons why the researchers thought the higher-skilled golfers maintained their performance regardless of instructions. Higher-level performers tend to have more attentional resources free (their skills are more automatic and require less cognitive processing), so they had attentional capacity to spare for processing avoidant instructions. Whereas for the lower-skilled golfers, the demands of processing avoidant instructions took away from the attentional resources necessary to execute.

      Hope this helps to clarify things a tiny bit!

      1. Yes, thank you for this followup! I was thinking that the Do advice would have instructional value, rather than a simplistic, “Do the right thing, whatever that means to you.” So in a dance context that could take the form of “Don’t push/pull with your arms,” and “Do use the rotation of your torso through your arms to signal your intentions to your partner.” But now I realize with your help that those are at heart “Don’t do wrong, ” and “Do right,” until we add experience exercises and more description for the student to feel, see, hear to right way.

        Thank you for all the work you do to bring us interesting and useful practice findings.

  2. I heard once that the subconscious mind doesn’t process the negative word in instructions, so telling your self ‘don’t rush’ actually becomes ‘do rush’ (etc.) to the subconscious mind. Do you know if there is any truth to that?

    1. Hi Matthew,

      I’ve heard that as well, and though I haven’t really looked, I can’t say that I’ve ever come across a study about this. My guess is that it has more to do with what David and I were talking about above…that it takes more attentional resources to process “don’t” instructions. But if you do happen to find something about this, I’d certainly be curious to take a look.

    2. There is a disreputable offshoot of NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) called Speed Seduction that uses “Sleight of Mouth” techniques, wherein by intonation and emphasis, even though you might be saying some seemingly innocent thing, you actively expect your listener to hear something else.

      I totally agree that this can happen even in the absence of hidden intent. In a class setting, for example, with other noises and distracted attention, it can be easy to miss whether the teacher is talking about the Do or the Don’t thing. That is why in the few cases where it feels useful to include a Don’t, I use multiple markers, both in words and visually to indicate that I’m showing the “bad” example.

  3. I think that a “don’t” instruction, immediately followed by what to “do” instead, can be very effective, provided that it is made clear what the undesired and desired behavior are. Often, I find it very useful to know what not to do and know what to do instead, and I think most one-on-one music lessons spend a lot of time on “programming” students in this way. Of course, it should not be random, general advice, but advice catered specifically to improving the student’s weaknesses or augmenting their strengths. (That is a deviation from the study cited; maybe that is why the better golfers ignored the advice, judging from their scores?) It would be interesting to see a study on the effectiveness of this approach.

  4. More and more, whether with students or myself, I am moving away from both Do and Don’t, toward, “What do I want *more* of,” and “What do I want *less* of?” This feels like it more actively engages creative evaluation and experimentation. It also recognizes that everything we do falls in a range of possibilities, one end might be undesirable and the other end great. Or maybe both extremes are undesirable, and there is a range of ‘sweet spot’ possibilities between them.

    I think some (or all) of this has been reported on Dr. Kageyama’s blog, and I’m sorry I don’t have references. We may create some useful responses from mere Do and Don’t instructions, and we really begin to create understanding when we explore the range of possibilities to discover our sweet spot.

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