The Problem with Positivity (Negative Embedded Commands)

Imagine you’re at a party. You stop in the kitchen to refill your beverage. You find yourself drawn into a conversation. As the evening (and the conversation) progresses, the kitchen fills with more and more people.

Soon it seems as though the rest of the house must be empty! Everyone is in the kitchen!

People gather where there is food. "Cake!" by Kate Russel, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
People gather where there is food and warmth. “Cake!” by Kate Russel, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

I’m sure you’ve noticed — people love to gather in the kitchen at parties. The hearth is the symbolic center of the home, where food and warmth are found.

Kitchens can also be small and quickly become loud.

My parent’s kitchen is loud. The granite counter-tops, glass cabinets, and stainless appliances echo every conversation. Add in my two young kids and the noise becomes overwhelming.

“We’re all right here. Don’t talk so loud!” It’s something every one of us has said, probably in a loud voice to ensure we’re heard.

The human brain primarily works on positive thoughts. Any attempt to not think of a pink elephant, for example, must start with a pink elephant.

Don’t think about a warm beach vacation!

This “positive-first” concept is important if we’re trying to direct behavior or opinions. Adding a negative (such as “no” or “not”) may have little impact on our request. The brain first needs to hold a positive idea before it can reject it. The positive-first idea is one form of an “embedded command” — giving a command buried within extra words.

With our example, the request “don’t talk so loud!” requires that we first think about talking loud.

Humans are easily distracted. Our brains may overlook the negative of the idea we just planted. Your audience might only hear (or read) the positive-first idea: “Talk loud!”

That’s the problem with positivity — if we don’t know what we’re doing, it can get in our way! Luckily here on PRL we’re learning how to persuade and influence.

Remember, what we put into our brains determines what comes out.

If we want to lead someone towards different behavior or thoughts, we do far better to positively emphasize the behavior that we do want to see: “Speak softly; please lower your voice.” Modeling the correct voice is important in this situation as well.


Getting these embedded commands right is important at the office, when we need coworkers to handle specific tasks:

  • Instead of “Don’t arrive late tomorrow,” you can suggest “Be sure to arrive early tomorrow!”
  • Instead of “Don’t forget to update your report,” use “Remember to update your report.”


Positive embedded commands are important at home with our kids:

  • At bedtime, instead of “Don’t get out of bed,” suggest “Stay in bed.”
  • Instead of “You can’t go outside right now,” try “You must stay inside right now.”


It’s even important with our own motivating self-talk:

  • Instead of, “I won’t rush through my speech,” tell yourself, “I will take my time and let my words breath.”


This type of embedded command can also be used in reverse. Reverse Psychology is when we tell someone they don’t want something, which plants the idea that maybe they do want it:

  • “You don’t want the fast car, it’s not your style.” Or is it?
  • “You’ll never eat all of that.” Watch me.


Human brains work on positive ideas first. As much as possible, stick with the positive framing of your request.

I see two signs that specifically read, "ENTER!" Photo "do_not_enter" by Chris Cast, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
I see two signs that specifically read, “ENTER!” Photo by Chris Cast “do_not_enter”, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

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