Brain Motivation – Revving Your Engine in Idle
“Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.” —MARK TWAIN, FROM A LETTER TO AN UNIDENTIFIED PERSON
Beating the System Like a Drum
I’d like to introduce you to a most unlikely master of industry. We begin by observing Mike in high school. He is, to use the vernacular of the eighties, a “total burnout.” He misses classes and chronically shows up late for the ones he does attend. The only thing he makes sure never to miss are parties. At those, he’s a fixture. He sleeps very little and parties very hard—and he’s a thread shy of being kicked out of school.
What almost no one realizes about this young man is that he really does have a quite lofty aspiration: He wants to learn everything there is to know about lasers. From a very young age, he was fascinated with light—from flashlights to fluorescents—and was endlessly curious about how they worked. School bores him. His real education, as far as he’s concerned, comes from reading what he wants to read. Sometimes he spends hours at the local library reading books about laser technology—how it works, its applications, its future.
The other thing just a few people know about him is that he’s a text book lazy genius—an underachiever par excellence. While he struggles to get Cs in school, he aces standardized tests without the least preparation. And that’s how he gets to college, where, with more freedom to learn what he wants to learn, he does exceptionally well. So well, in fact, that he’s offered a spot in a laser tech graduate program at Carnegie Mellon University. He studies with some of the most renowned laser experts in the world. While still in school, he starts his first business developing specialized lasers for computer hardware companies. He eventually starts three more companies, each focused on development of customized laser applications.
Today, he is one of the foremost laser experts in the world, and the pioneer of pathbreaking laser applications most of us can barely imagine. His companies work with the largest corporations on the planet; in a very real sense, he is helping to design the future.
Mike’s story is an illustration that the systems we find ourselves in are not always best suited for our potential. Low achievers, even extremely smart ones, can become terminal failures if their passions and interests are not tapped. Educational systems accomplish this in some cases, but often they simply fail. That leaves people like Mike to either figure out how to work around the shortcomings of the system and themselves—or be left in the dust. Mike did it by focusing on the one thing that was always fun for him to learn about from an early age.
To make matters more complicated, the happy brain is not natively structured to challenge the systems we inhabit. Think of a system—educational or otherwise—as an environment that has been built for people like us. Schools are, in fact, just that: designed environments for learning. Once we become part of that environment, our brains begin the work of mapping out the territory so that we can secure a niche. When that has been achieved, changing things up causes instability, and instability is a threat to the happy brain.
So how does a chronic low achiever like Mike (or one of the other many examples out in the world) go from nearly not making it through high school to becoming a global master of industry? That question brings us to our first topic.
Achievement for Me, Boring for You
With Mike’s story as a backdrop, let’s start with a question about what sort of achiever you are. If I asked you to place yourself somewhere along a spectrum, with the far left side representing quintessential slackerdom, and the far right side representing hyperoverachiever mania—where would you fall? We’ll come back to that question in a minute, but first let’s talk about an age-old generalization.
Everyone agrees that high achievers do many things well, particularly when they’re convinced that excellence requires their utmost performance. Low achievers, as we also know, have a hard time getting motivated and often find themselves coughing in the dust of the high achievers’ hustle. That’s the generalization, and like all generalizations, this one has a definite limit. A study conducted by University of Florida researcher William Hart uncovered a variable that knocks this scenario on its head, and it has everything to do with what makes low achievers tick.1
Researchers conducted multiple studies to evaluate how participants’ attitudes toward achievement influenced their performance. In one study, participants were primed with high-achievement words (related to winning, excellence, etc.) flashed on a computer screen. Each word appeared only for an instant, too fast for conscious deliberation. Participants with high-achievement motivation performed significantly better on tasks after being primed with the words than those with low achievement motivation.
In another study, participants completing word-search puzzles were interrupted, and then given a choice to either resume the task or switch to a task they perceived as more enjoyable. Those with high achievement motivation were significantly more likely to return to the puzzles than the underachievers.
The results of those studies buttress what we generally know about high and low achievers. But the final study was a wicked curveball. Participants were primed with high-achievement words (e.g., excel, compete, win) and then asked to complete a word-search puzzle. But instead of describing the task as a serious test of verbal proficiency, the researchers called it “fun.” The results: Participants with high-achievement motivation did significantly worse on the task than low achievers.
The study authors believe that when high achievers are primed to achieve excellence, the idea that a task is “fun” undercuts their desire to excel. If something is enjoyable and fun, how could it possibly be a credible gauge of achievement? Conversely, low achievers who are similarly primed with achievement words perceive a “fun” task as worthwhile. Not only is their motivation to perform improved, so is their ability.
This intriguing twist says much about why one-size-fits-all educational strategies so often fail. For students motivated to achieve excellence, making tasks entertaining may actually undermine their performance. Likewise, for those not normally motivated to achieve, describing a task as urgent and serious yields the predictable result.
Coming back to my initial question: Whether your answer put you closer to the low-achiever or high-achiever end of the spectrum, the takeaway is that trying to force yourself into a motivational mold not sized for your personality probably isn’t going to work. Regrettably, many of the “systems” we find ourselves in—educational or otherwise—were designed without this knowledge, so it’s usually up to us to figure out how to game our way into better performance.
The crucial thing to remember is that your brain is not natively tuned to challenge the system. Going head-to-head with established conventions causes disruptions in stability and consistency—and that triggers alarms. You can heed those alarms and stay right where you are, or you can forge ahead and find a way to manage the conflict. For example, you may be the sort of person who finds getting motivated at work extremely difficult. You can fight through your lack of motivation as a matter of necessity, but it’s a draining process that just doesn’t seem like it should be so hard. It’s time to more closely examine what sort of achiever you are and determine if the motivational dynamics you rely on are the best fit. If you think you’re closer to the low-achiever end of the spectrum, ask if you have enough enjoyment threaded through your projects.
The remedy might be very simple, like listening to music while working. Or it might be more elaborate, like scheduling breaks in your planner to get out of the office at different points during the day and talking with a colleague about movies, music, or anything else that will inject a dose of fun into your day. Or you may need to audit your projects to identify ways to “lighten” your disposition toward their more mundane requirements. Push yourself to be creative in finding the solution.
If you find yourself always well behind projects and chores at home, change your perspective and ask if you’re having a hard time getting things done because you haven’t engaged the right motivational cues for who you are. If you like gardening because it’s a fun, laid-back pastime, but hate organizing your garage (for obvious reasons), do a little fun infused self-negotiation. On Saturday, agree to devote three hours to organizing the garage. On Sunday, you’re not even going to think about the garage, but instead spend as much time cultivating your garden as you like. Spending time doing what you enjoy becomes, in effect, a reward for accomplishing what you don’t.
It’s easy to get caught up in the popular mantra of achievement that simplistically assumes motivation is always available as long as the achiever has enough desire and will. The point is that lacking a hard-wired desire to “achieve” does not mean you can’t achieve, or even that you’re “achievement handicapped.” The research indicates that you just need to be a little more creative. In doing so, the fight to reach your goals becomes less arduous and might even become something you like taking on. Remember, your brain is structured to take the path of least resistance,because that’s the less threatening way to go—but it’s usually not the one that will lead you to greater echelons of achievement.
Competition and the Size of Your Fishbowl
Now let’s shift to another motivational vantage point and examine what sort of competitor you are. Are you a “solo practitioner” or do you perform best when you can see your competition, sizing them up before battle? If you think you’re in the second category, then you’re just like most of us. Conventional wisdom has it that one of our mightiest competitive motivators is social comparison: We begin competing with others as soon as we compare ourselves to them. Whether the stakes are minuscule or massive, something in us wants to measure up inch for inch.
Research conducted by University of Michigan professor of psychology Stephen Garcia shows, however, that our competitive urges don’t engorge in a vacuum: It’s not merely being among a group of competitors, but the number of competitors we’re vying against that has a direct effect on our motivation to compete.2 Your brain isn’t about to let you dive into competition without opening an opportunity for you to short-circuit your efforts and get back to a comfortable, noncompetitive state of mind.
Here’s an illustration: Jessica takes a seat in a classroom with ten other students. She looks around, evaluates the competitive landscape, and determines that her odds of doing well against this small group are good. The instructor passes out the particle physics exam, and Jessica is off and running, motivated to score among the best in this class.
Jason arrives at a different room to take his exam, and it’s a lot bigger than Jessica’s. In fact, it’s ten times as big, and Jason has to find a seat in a crowd of one hundred students. He looks around and gulps. There’s no way to realistically compare himself to so many people. The instructor passes out the exam and Jason begins without feeling a competitive edge.
The lack of motivation that Jason feels, in comparison to Jessica’s hypermotivated resolve, is what psychologists refer to as the N-Effect: the effect that occurs when the number of total competitors results in diminished motivation for individual competitors. Researchers assessed this effect through a series of five studies: the first examined SAT and CRT (Cognitive Reflective Test) scores in light of how many people took the tests in given venues over multiple years. Even when controlling for other variables, researchers found a significant inverse correlation between the number of test takers and scores: the more people taking the test, the worse the scores. Another study examined whether test takers, told to finish the test as quickly as possible, would finish their test faster when competing against ten others or when competing against one hundred. As predicted, the best-scoring testers finished their tests significantly faster when competing against a smaller group.
Why Self-Awareness Fuels Motivation
What’s the best way to keep the N-Effect from undermining your motivation to compete? As with many unconscious influences, the solution is to identify it early and critically dismantle its effect before you succumb. In other words, force yourself to exert more rational muscle than you would if blind to the influence.
For example, let’s say that you are interviewing for a job, and as you enter the office lobby you see six other candidates awaiting interviews for the same position. As you take your seat, you think to yourself that if six others are there that day for the interview, then it’s more than likely several others are interviewing as well—making the total candidate pool far larger than you had expected. Your first reaction is that your chances of getting this job just took a harrowing drop. That thought leads to a jolt of intimidation, and your motivation is falling by the second.
But you stop yourself right there and ask, “If I didn’t know how many other candidates were vying for this job, would I still be feeling this sudden drain on my motivation? What’s really changed?” The truth is that the only factor that has changed is your awareness that at least six others, and probably more, are competing against you. Does this observation make you any less competent, skilled, or experienced than you were when you agreed to the interview? Absolutely not. Your footing to compete at your highest level of ability need not slip an inch. Realizing this, you march into the interview and put everything you’ve got into getting the position. And as we’re about to see, you’d also do well to believe that you will receive the result soon after you leave the building.
Feedback: The Faster the Better
Shifting just slightly to another vantage point, let’s talk about the role performance feedback plays in the motivational mix. A strong argument can be made for positive feedback increasing motivation and negative feedback dampening it. But an equally strong argument can be made that negative feedback increases motivation, at least for some of us, because it presents a challenge to overcome. There’s little point debating this because, depending on who you are, either argument might apply. What’s not nearly as clear is the effect of when we receive the feedback—or, more precisely, when we expect to receive it.
Let’s say that you’re preparing for an extremely important test that you and roughly one hundred other classmates will be taking in a week (or, if you prefer, an executive training program exam, or certification exam—pick your poison). A few days before the test, you find out that your instructor will be going on a trip not long after the test is over and will be providing written and verbal feedback to the students within a day of the test. This is unusual, because ordinarily the instructor waits a week or more before providing feedback. About half the class finds out that they’ll be getting rapid feedback and the other half thinks they won’t receive feedback for several days, per usual.
You Can Be Afraid to Lose, Just Don’t Lose Perspective
Sweaty palms and upper lips, fidgety fingers and bouncing knees, frantic, racing thoughts—all are signs of emotional tumult when facing the risk of loss, and all seem involuntary. But a study indicates that we can influence the degree of emotional reaction and our level of loss aversion. The solution, in short: Think like a stock trader. Seasoned traders are careful not to lose perspective when facing potential loss. They view loss as part of the game, but not the end of the game, and they rationally accept that taking a risk entails the possibility of losing. Researchers wanted to investigate whether cognitive regulation strategies (i.e., strategies to change thinking, like those used by traders) could be used to affect loss aversion and the physiological correlates of facing loss. Subjects were given $30 and offered a choice to either gamble the money, and potentially lose it, or keep it. They could theoretically win up to $572 or lose the $30 and be left with nothing. The outcomes of their choices were revealed immediately after the choice was made (e.g., “you won”). Subjects completed two full sets of choices (140 choices per set). During the first set, subjects were told that the choice was isolated from any larger context (“as if it was the only one to consider”); during the second set, subjects were told that the choice was part of a greater context (“as if creating a portfolio”)—in other words, the introduction of “greater context” (taking a different perspective) functioned as a cognitive regulation strategy. The researchers conducted this study twice: In the first, they observed behavior; in the second, they observed behavior and administered a skin conductance test (a measure of sympathetic nervous system activity) to measure level of emotional arousal. The results: Using the cognitive regulation strategy had the strong effect of decreasing loss aversion. Most important, only individuals successful at decreasing their loss aversion by taking a different perspective had a corresponding reduction in physiological arousal response to potential loss. So cognitive regulation led to less loss aversion, which led to less sweat on the upper lip.3
Which group is more likely to perform better on the test?
That question was investigated by University of Alberta researchers Keri Kettle and Gerald Haubl, who hypothesized that the mere anticipation of proximate feedback would result in better performance on a test. Previous research has shown that when feedback is rapid, the threat of disappointment increases.4 The desire to avoid the dreary feeling you get when you fall short of expectations is a potent motivator to perform well.
Students were recruited into the study by e-mails sent one, eight, or fifteen days prior to a nerve-wracking test of their performance: making a public presentation. The students were reminded of their presentation date and also told when they would receive a grade, which would be provided as a percentile score (e.g., 90th percentile, 70th percentile, etc.). Then they were asked to predict their performance by selecting a grade rank from out of ten possible percentile grades. In all, 271 people ranging in age from eighteen to thirty-two participated in the study.
The results were consistent with the hypothesis: Participants who anticipated more rapid feedback scored the highest on the test. The surprising part was how significantly different the grades were for each group. Students who thought they’d receive rapid feedback performed 22 percentile ranks higher than students who thought they wouldn’t receive feedback for several days, and this held true across the full range of scores.
At the same time, predicted performance went in exactly the opposite direction. Students who predicted they would perform the best actually performed the worst; students who predicted they’d perform the worst did the best.
The reason for these results is that the students who feared disappointment the most (those who thought they’d receive immediate feed-back) were more powerfully motivated to do well, while simultaneously reducing their personal expectations of performance to prep themselves for bad news. In other words, motivation to perform well and pessimistic expectations are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they seem to get along famously.
The other students saw disappointment as a more distant possibility and were consequently less prepared for the test, even though they thought they’d do just fine. The takeaway here seems to me very practical: When you’re about to face a test of performance (in any walk of life), imagine that you’ll receive feedback right away and act accordingly. The proximity of potential disappointment will keep you sharp and ready to perform.
And don’t feel bad if a bit of pessimism slips in to help you brace for impact. It’s best to view that pessimism as your brain’s way of alerting you to the possibility of failure—an unpleasant jolt to cerebral happiness. As we’ve discussed, that’s an alarm you can certainly choose to honor, but doing so isn’t going to allow you to reach the level of performance you’re striving for.
So far we’ve talked about the sort of achiever you are, the role of competition, and the effect of feedback timing—and in each case we’ve seen that motivation tips up or down depending on a slew of variables that we can identify—and in doing so give ourselves a better chance of capturing the magic. Now let’s talk about whether going public with our intentions—as many motivational programs advise—really does amp up our motivation. For this we’ll use an example taken from the upper echelon of America’s national obsessions: losing weight.
Several of the most popular weight-loss programs operate on the public commitment principle. Individuals are challenged to state “publicly” (which may simply mean in front of a small weight-loss group) that they want to lose so much weight in a given time period. The commitment hinges on social pressure working against the possibility of failure. If someone doesn’t succeed, or at least make substantial progress toward the goal, everyone will know it.
On the face of it, this principle seems sound, since no one wants to be publicly embarrassed or viewed as a hypocrite. In practice, however, there’s a hitch. For the public-commitment principle to operate at full steam, its adherents must genuinely fear the disapproval of others—and that’s simply not true of everyone.
A study conducted by researchers Prashanth U. Nyer and Stephanie Dellande investigated how public commitment affects individuals who fear social disapproval—that is, people with high susceptibility to what psychologists call normative influence (SNI)—versus individuals who are not as easily influenced by others’ opinions (low SNI). It also tested the efficacy of short-term versus long-term public commitment, as well as no public commitment.5
Two-hundred and eleven women between the ages twenty and forty five were recruited for the study. They signed up for a sixteen-week weight-loss program designed to help people lose fifteen to twenty pounds and maintain weight loss over time. All subjects completed questionnaires that gauged SNI level and personal weight-loss motivation. Subjects were then randomly separated into three groups: long-term public commitment, short-term public commitment, and no public commitment. Those in the long-term group wrote their names and weight loss goals on index cards that were publicly displayed in the fitness center for the full sixteen weeks of the program. Those in the short-term group did the same, but the cards were displayed for only the first three weeks. Those in the no-public-commitment group did not fill out cards.
At the conclusion of the study, the effect of long-term public commitment was evident. Those in the long-term group lost significantly more weight than the short-term and no-commitment groups. At the six-teen-week mark, subjects in the long-term group had, on average, exceeded their goals to the tune of 102 percent, while the short-term group achieved an average of 96 percent success and the no-commitment group reached only 88 percent.
The effect of SNI level was also evident. Subjects in the long-term group that tested as having low SNI—in other words, low susceptibility to social pressure—achieved an average of 90 percent of their weight loss goals. In contrast, individuals who tested as having high SNI exceeded their weight-loss goals by a significant margin: an average of nearly 105 percent.
What this study tells us is that in general the public-commitment principle produces results, especially if the commitment is long-term. But, in the mix of people who make the commitment, those who genuinely fear social disapproval—not a personality trait usually given very high marks—will likely succeed the most. Those who couldn’t care less what others think are, ironically, more likely to come up short.
Talking to Your Inner Bob
Are you the sort of person who routinely tells yourself that you probably can’t achieve whatever it is you’d like to achieve? Does the voice in your head—the voice of a brain that craves stability—say things like, “Be realistic, you can’t really do this.” And perhaps, fed up with positive self-talk mumbo jumbo in the media, you think that the only self-talk worth listening to is the “realistic” kind—the kind that tells you how it is.
Whatever your feelings about positive psychology and its many spinoffs, I’m here to tell you that credible research has something to say about all this—and your little voice should be listening. Research by University of Illinois professor Dolores Albarracin and her team has convincingly shown that those who ask themselves whether they will perform a task generally do better than those who tell themselves that they will.6
But first, a slight digression. If you have young kids or even early teens, you may be familiar with the TV showBob the Builder. Bob is a positive little man with serious intentions about building and fixing things. Prior to taking on any given task, he loudly asks himself and his team, “Can we fix it?” To which his team responds, “Yes we can!” Now, compare this approach with that of the Little Engine That Could, who’s oft-repeated success phrase was, “I think I can, I think I can…” In a nut-shell, the research we’re about to discuss wanted to know which approach works best.
Researchers tested these two different motivational approaches with fifty study participants, first asking them to either spend a minute wondering whether they would complete a task or telling themselves they would. The participants showed more success on an anagram task (rearranging words to create different words) when theyasked themselves whether they would complete it than when they told themselves they would.
In another experiment, students were asked to write two seemingly unrelated sentences, starting with either “I Will” or “Will I,” and then work on the same anagram task. Participants did better when they wrote, “Will” followed by “I” even though they had no idea that the word writing related to the anagram task. In other words, by asking themselves a question, people were more likely to build their own motivation than if they simply told themselves they’d get it done.
The takeaway for us is that little voice has a point—sort of. Telling ourselves that we can achieve a goal may not get us too far. Asking our-selves, on the other hand, may bear significant fruit. Retool your self-talk to focus on the questions instead of presupposing answers, and allow your mind to build motivation around the question. Or take a shortcut and just remember the anthem of Bob the Builder.
1. William Hart, “The Effects of Chronic Achievement Motivation and Achievement Primes on the Activation of Achievement and Fun Goals,” Psychology Bulletin 135 (July 2009): 555–88.
2. Stephen Garcia, “The N-effect: More Competitors, Less Competition,” Psychologcal Science (July 2009): 871–77.
3. Peter Sokol-Hessner et al., “Thinking Like a Trader Selectively Reduces Individuals’ Loss Aversion,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (July 2008): 5035–40.
4. Keri Kettle et al., “Motivation by Anticipation: Expecting Rapid Feedback Enhances Performance,” Psychological Science (April 2010): 545–47.
5. Prashanth U. Nyer et al., “Public Commitment as a Motivator for Weight Loss,” Psychology and Marketing 27 (January 2010): 1–2.
6. L. Senay et al., “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense,” Psychological Science 21 (April 2010): 499–504.