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Author: Rodney Daut

Common Advice Scientifically Proven To Kill Motivation

Common Advice Scientifically Proven To Kill Motivation

Some people say that to keep your motivation high you need to review your progress frequently.  Others say you should keep your eye on the prize and notice the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

bigstock_Teenage_girl_studying_at_the_d_13025183Is one of these perspectives right and the other wrong?

It turns out that psychologists have studied this question and their answer was surprising to me.

Each of these ways of thinking about your goal can reduce motivation or increase motivation depending on your level of commitment to your goal.

If you are highly committed to your goal, thinking about how much you have left to do called to-go thinking raises motivation but thinking about how much you’ve accomplished — to-date thinking — reduces motivation.

The opposite is true if your level of commitment is uncertain or low.  Thinking about how much you’ve accomplished will raise motivation and how much you have left to do will lower motivation.

One of many studies that demonstrate this point was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In this study researchers had college students who were studying for a core-course exam think about their progress in terms of how much studying they’d done or how much studying they had left to do.

These students were highly committed to getting a good grade on the exam because it was for a core course and those that thought in terms of how far they’d come, had less motivation to study and studied much less than those students who thought in terms of how much work they had left to do.

In the same study another group of college students were assigned time to study for an elective-course exam – this would be something they had low and/or uncertain commitment to.

Some of these students were made to think in terms of how much progress they had made on studying for the exam and others were made to think in terms of how much work they had to do.

And these students experienced the opposite effects of those studying for the core-course exam.

Those thinking about how much work was left to do studied less and reported feeling less motivated.  Those thinking about how much work they’d accomplished felt more motivated and studied for more hours.

But why does thinking about how much work is left to do or has been done have different effects depending on your level of commitment?

Researchers say this is because when you think in terms of how much progress you’ve made on something important to you, it activates a drive to achieve more balance, so you end up spending more time on other goals.

And when your commitment is low or uncertain it’s as if you ask the question “How committed am I?” and you look to your own behavior for evidence of commitment.  If you see that you have been putting time and energy into a goal, you decide that this goal must be important to you.  Thinking about how much is left to do does not provide evidence of commitment and so does not raise your motivation.

So now you know what to do to raise your commitment to your goal if it is low and how to keep your motivation high if you’re already highly committed to achieving your goal.

How will you use this information to get more done and reach your goals?

Leave a comment with your answer below.

Dynamics of self-regulation: How (un)accomplished goal actions affect motivation. Koo, Minjung; Fishbach, Ayelet
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 94(2), Feb 2008, 183-195. doi:

How Thinking of Failure Can Help You Succeed

How Thinking of Failure Can Help You Succeed

I know the title of this post sounds strange and may even be impossible to believe.  However, recent research shows it’s true – thoughts of failure can help you succeed.  And more surprisingly thoughts of success can help you fail.  It all depends on how many successes or failures you are thinking about.

In one study conducted by Leila Selimbegovica, Isabelle Régnerb, Rasyid Bo Sanitiosoc and Pascal Huguetd participants were divided into four groups.

Members of each group were asked to think about math memories before taking a math test.

One group was asked to think of one time they succeeded in math.

Another group was asked to think of one time they failed in math

A third group was asked to think of several math successes.

A fourth group was asked to think of several math failures.

Which groups did best on the test?

The group that thought of several successes in math AND the group that thought of only one failure in math did better than the other groups.

But why?

Researchers explain that when a person thinks of just one failure or one success they think that the event was produced by external factors.  So the failure or success was caused by something other than the person’s traits.  This means that thinking of one success makes you think that you are not responsible for the success which lowers your confidence and performance.  And thinking of just one failure makes you feel you are not responsible for that failure which surprisingly raises your confidence and performance.

However, when you think of several successes or failures, the only thing in common with all those experiences is that they happened to you.  And your mind infers from this that something about you produced those successes or failures.  As a result, thinking of many successes makes you confident and thinking of many failures makes you lose confidence (no surprise there).

So how do you use this information to better your life?

Before an important meeting or performance, think of the many times in the past you have succeeded or if you don’t have any past successes, think of one and only one time you failed.

You’ll give yourself a confidence boost that will increase your chances of success.


Influence of general and specific autobiographical recall on subsequent behavior: The case of cognitive performance.
Leila Selimbegovica, Isabelle Régnerb, Rasyid Bo Sanitiosoc and Pascal Huguetd.

Block Unwanted Thoughts For Good – Research Shows How

Block Unwanted Thoughts For Good – Research Shows How

Have you ever wanted to stop thinking about something but found you just couldn’t get that thought out of your head?  Well you are not alone.

In many studies in which people were asked to NOT think about something like a white bear for a period of time, later their thoughts about white bears would multiply.

This phenomenon is called Post Suppressional Rebound.  And the most prevalent theory to explain it is called “ironic processing theory.”  According to this theory the act of suppressing a thought causes your mind to monitor how well you are suppressing the thought.  As a result you end up thinking the thought to see how well you are suppressing it.

One problem with this theory is it gives you no way to solve the problem of having unwanted thoughts.

However, some recent research conducted by Forester and Liberman has come up with a very different theory to explain this and a theory that you can actually use to stop thinking about something today.

In one of the studies 80 undergraduate students at the University of Wurzberg were divided into three groups.  The members of each group were asked to try to try NOT to think of a white bear for 5 minutes and to ring a bell every time they had a thought of a white bear.

However, the members of each group were given different instructions BEFORE they were given this task.

One group was told that thinking of a white bear means you are motivated to think of white bears (high motivation group).  And that for example, smokers who keep thinking of smoking have a high motivation to smoke.

Another group was told that people who think of white bears during the task have a low motivation to think of white bears (low motivation group).  They were also told that smokers who fail to suppress thoughts of smoking have a low motivation to smoke.

A third group was not given any additional instructions for the task (no attribution group).

After all three groups completed the first five minute exercise, they were given another task.

This time they were to verbalize their thoughts for 5 minutes and were free to think of anything they wanted including white bears.  They were also asked to ring the bell each time they thought of white bears.

So what happened to the three groups?

As expected the group not given additional instructions and the group told that thinking of white bears means you are motivated to think of white bears thought about them a lot more during the second task.  In fact, both groups almost doubled their thoughts of white bears when they were allowed to think about anything they wanted after having earlier suppressed thoughts of white bears.

However, the group told that thinking of white bears means you are NOT motivated to think of white bears (low motivation group) experienced a reduction in thoughts of white bears.  They thought about them half as often as they did before – averaging only 4 thoughts per person.

What does the fact that the low motivation group reduced their thoughts of white bears on the second task tell us?

According to the researchers people make conclusions about their motivation based on their behavior.  If you find suppressing a thought difficult, you may assume that this means you are motivated to think the thought.  And this assumption causes you to think it more.

And because most people make this inference when trying to suppress thoughts, this conclusion is very common.

However, if you are told that thinking about a thought means you are NOT motivated to think of the thought you are able to think about it less often.

So how is this useful?

The researchers mention that people who are trying to stop addictive or compulsive behavior will often have many thoughts about those behaviors throughout the day.  And because they assume that thinking about these behaviors means they want to engage in them, they may have a more difficult time maintaining changes than if they knew that having thoughts about something does not necessarily say anything about your motivation.

However, I think this insight is useful even if you don’t have an addictive or compulsive behavior.  Most of us want to change something about our lives or have something that tempts us.

With the knowledge that tempting thoughts does NOT mean you really want to succumb to temptation, you may be more likely to stick to your commitments if these thoughts crowd your mind.

And if you ever have a painful thought you’d like to stop, you now know you can reduce its frequency by merely being aware that failure to block the thought does not mean you want to think the thought.

Reference to the study:

J. Foerster & N. Liberman (2001) The role of attribution in producing postsuppressional rebound.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 377-390.

How A Simple Change Of Mindset Can Reduce Stress

How A Simple Change Of Mindset Can Reduce Stress

Recent research shows that people who describe themselves as high in self control (aka control freaks) tend to experience a lot more stress at work.


They tend to use up all their internal resources at once.  In other words they put everything they have into the task they are doing at the moment and when the task takes longer than expected they don’t have anything left over to face the additional challenges.

Dr. Ein-Gar of Tel Aviv University‘s Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration used shopping as a way to measure this effect.  He gathered hundreds of volunteers and had them go shopping.  He found that those who described themselves as having high self-control were more impulsive in their buying decisions than those who rated themselves as low in self-control.  In fact, high self-control people were more likely to make a spontaneous purchase at the checkout counter without even looking at the price tag.

Dr. Ein-Gar conducted surveys of these people afterwards and found that that those who rated themselves as high in self-control “didn’t foresee certain events like having to wait in line. It’s the same in the workplace when the boss hands out a major assignment moments just before quitting time.”

So how can those of us who focus too much on the task at hand avoid burn out?  A further experiment by Dr. Ein-Gar gives us a clue.

In this study participants were assigned two tasks.  One group was told that they had two tasks, another was not told they would do two tasks.  Those who were warned about the second task did better than the group that was given a ‘surprise’ second task.

According to Dr. Ein-Gar this warning put the first group into something he calls “the marathon mindset” which involves starting slow and pacing yourself.  You can use this mindset yourself but also if you mange others.

As according to Dr. Ein-Gar, “Our results can be applied across the board from managing a business to making sure we run our personal lives more smoothly.”

So if you’re a manager you can prepare your employees by letting them know that more than likely unexpected challenges will come their way on a project.  There will likely be more tasks to do than the ones in the project plan.

“The world may be multi-tasking at a frenetic pace,” Dr. Ein-Gar concludes, “but in thinking like a marathon runner, people with high self-control won’t mind other people passing them. Marathon runners know that the race is long, but the winner is the one who can finish the race at the end with power left over to keep running.”

Link to a summary of the research described above:

Science Shows Us How To Read Minds (Really)

Science Shows Us How To Read Minds (Really)

Research has shown that people spend much of their time trying to figure out what others think.  Does this person like me?  Does he/she find me attractive?  In effect, we attempt to “read minds.”

Unfortunately research also shows that we are notoriously inaccurate in our mind reading.  One study showed that the accuracy of people’s guesses about whether people in a group liked them were based purely on chance – like flipping a coin.

So how can we increase our ability to know what others really think of us?  How can we more accurately peer into the minds of others?

A study done by Tal Eyal and Nicholas Epley shows how.

In this study 106 students at the University of Chicago were put into two groups Targets and Observers.  Targets posed for a picture and were told their appearance would be rated by someone of the opposite sex.

Half of the Targets were told that their photo would be rated today (near condition) and the other half were told it would be rated later (distant condition).  They were then asked to write down how they thought an observer would describe their photo and how the Observer might rate their attractiveness on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 9 (very).

The second group called Observers were shown the photo, asked to describe it and rate it on the same scale.

The results:  Students who were asked to imagine how they’d be rated by someone a few months in the future were far more accurate in their judgments of how attractive they’d appear to another person.


An analysis of their self-descriptions showed that those in the distant condition were using what’s called a high level of mental construal (thinking abstractly) to think about themselves and so did the Observers.  These students were more accurate in their predictions because their level mental construal matched that of the Observers.

Usually, people think of themselves in a low level of mental construal – that means we see ourselves in fine-level, detail, as if with a microscope.  Another way of saying it is we see ourselves in concrete terms.  For example, we’ll notice the exact way our hair is placed and how it is different from yesterday instead of just thinking “my hair looks well-groomed” which would be more abstract.

Others, especially strangers, often view us using high level abstractions – tall, skinny, fat, happy, sad, Asian, black etc.  Because we use a different level of construal when thinking of ourselves than when others think of us, we tend to make less accurate judgments about what they think of us.  And because thinking about the future causes people to think abstractly, students in the distant condition thought about themselves more abstractly just as the Observers did.

But why do we use a low level of construal when thinking about ourselves and a higher level when thinking of others?

It all has to do with social distance.  When people are close to you, you have more knowledge of them and use low level construal.  And there is no person closer to you than yourself and no person for whom you have greater knowledge.  You know not only your own behavior but your intentions behind the behavior.  You know what your present and past habits are.  You know how you look today and how you looked at various other points in your life.

Others who don’t know you as well are likely to use broad generalizations to describe you for two reasons.  One you are not as close to them as they are to themselves so the greater social distance will lead them to thinking about you using higher level construals.  And second, they have less information about you than you do, so they have little choice but to use high level abstractions when thinking about you.

However, because social distance and knowledge are the key factors deterring what level of construal a person uses in thinking about you, you don’t need to raise your level of construal quite as much to read the minds of people close to you as they may already see you more concretely because the social distance between you will be much smaller than with a stranger.

This technique of thinking about yourself from a future perspective though can help us read the minds of strangers or those who are socially distant from us such as an acquaintance or your bosses boss much better than before.

What do you think of this study?  Please leave your comments below.

How To End An Argument With Anyone

How To End An Argument With Anyone

For decades psychologists have been looking for a reliable way for two people to overcome conflict with each other.  And unfortunately most of what they’ve tried just doesn’t work.

However, one strategy, that takes only seconds to apply, can allow any one person in an argument to become more objective – allowing them to create a level of understanding that can overcome a conflict.

Here’s how it was discovered.

An experiment was done with 168 college students from Carnegie Mellon, University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania.

Students were to examine a court case involving an injured motorcyclist that is suing the driver of a car that hit him.  All students were assigned to play the plaintiff (the motorcyclist) or the defendant (the driver of the car).

Students were told which role they would take, then they were asked to make a judgment as to how much (or little) money should be awarded to the motorcyclist and to negotiate a fair settlement.

Students would be given real money if they could successfully conclude negotiations and would be penalized financially if they could not come to an agreement in 30 minutes.

Those who were to argue for the motorcyclists thought a fair settlement was about $17, 709 higher than those who argued for the driver.  And only 72% of the pairs of students were able to come to an agreed settlement.

But what does this prove?  Not much until you consider the second group of students who were told their roles only after they considered the information.

This group, researchers believed would be more objective about the information.  And they were.  A full 94% of these students were able to bring their negotiations to a successful conclusion.

Researchers concluded based on questionnaires that participants filled out that knowing their roles in advance made students see the information through the lens of self-serving bias.

And it’s this self-serving bias – which has people view information in ways that enhance their own position – that makes it so hard to end an argument or successfully conclude a negotiation.

So how can we become more objective so we can overcome a conflict?  It’s impossible for us to go back in time and look at the information objectively before we needed it.  So there must be some other strategy that can allow us to gain perspective.

Fortunately further research by the same people gives us some clues as to what does not work as well as what does.

They tested three different strategies to get the students to be more objective in their negotiations.

First they tried, having participants read a paragraph about self-serving bias after learning their roles and reading the case but before they decided what a fair settlement would be and engaged in negotiations.

No dice.  These participants were no more fair than others.

However, when asked to predict what the other person would view as a fair settlement, they gave more accurate assessments.  So they were able to see how the other person would be influenced by a self-serving bias but thought it didn’t apply to themselves.

Second, they tried having the subjects argue the other person’s case in writing.  This strategy also failed to improve how many cases were “settled.”

Finally, researchers tried having participants read about the self-serving bias and were told that it is caused by failing to see weaknesses in their own case.

Students who received this information had a settlement rate of 96%.  A big improvement from the 70% achieved by students that didn’t get that information.  In fact, this is the same success rate achieved by participants were told their roles after they read the information on the case.

So how do you end an argument that’s reached an impasse?

Find a weakness in your own position.  Just finding one weakness is all it takes for any sense of stubbornness or righteousness to soften.  It makes you more objective and being more objective may help you better influence the other party as well.

Reference to study described above:

Babcock, L., and Loewenstein, G. (1997). “Explaining bargaining impasse: the role of self-serving biases.” Journal of Economic Perspectives. 11, 109-126.

A Trait More Powerful Than Self Esteem

A Trait More Powerful Than Self Esteem

For several decades now, psychologists, educators and the media have touted the benefits of high self-esteem.  A recent search on showed that there are 17,931 books on the topic with more added each day.

And there’s good reason for this, having high self-esteem is related to many positive benefits such as reduced instances of depression and anxiety and greater optimism.

However, it may be that this faith in the power of our own self images is misplaced as much research also shows that people high in self-esteem are often defensive in the face of negative feedback, can be narcissistic and may not always take responsibility for their actions (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, Vohs).

You might call this “unhealthy” high self-esteem since not all people with high self-esteem have these negative traits.

However, over the past 10 years or so researchers uncovered another positive trait that has many of the benefits we seek from self-esteem but without the drawbacks: self-compassion.

Self-compassion is defined as “being kind toward oneself in instances of pain or failure; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness (mindfulness).” (Neff, Rude, Kirkpatrick)

People high in self-compassion react to negative feedback with more acceptance and with an orientation towards growth and the development of mastery.  People low in self-compassion react in opposite ways: they reject negative feedback and often fail to learn from it.

People high in self-compassion tend to have less negative emotions when distressing events occur and take more responsibility for these events.  As a result, they are also more willing to make needed changes.

I think you get the picture.  High self-compassion is a very good thing.

So how can you get more of it?  The study below gives one answer to that question. (Leary, Tate, Allen, Hancock)

In this study 115 college students ages 17-21 were put into three groups.  One group was to write about a negative event that happened to them and then think about it in a self-compassionate way using three different prompts.  A second group was to write about a negative event and answer prompts designed to raise self-esteem.  A third group just wrote about a negative event to “get their feelings out.”

Researchers found that those who wrote about the event in the self-compassion condition were able to “acknowledge their role in negative events without feeling overwhelmed with negative emotions.”  This was surprising as when people take responsibility for negative events they often have strong negative feelings.

In other experiments described in the same paper students high and low in self-compassion were given feedback on a video taped public speaking task.  They were given negative feedback and positive feedback by two separate raters regardless of how they performed.  And those high in self-compassion again experienced less negative emotions than those low in self-compassion.

What these experiments show is that you can actually become more self-compassionate with yourself with a simple exercise and gain all the benefits of greater objectivity, reduced negative feelings and a greater ability to learn from your mistakes.

Here’s how to do it:

First, think of a negative event in your life that still makes you feel bad.  Then answer the following prompts each of which focuses on a component of self-compassion – (1) common humanity, (2) self-kindness, (3) mindfulness.

1.  List ways in which other people experience similar events.

2.  Write a paragraph expressing kindness, understanding and concern towards yourself the way you would for a friend going through the same type of experience.

3.  Describe your feelings about the event in an objective and unemotional fashion.

I’ve already tried this exercise a few times and I am pretty impressed with how much better I feel about some past events.

Try this exercise yourself and describe your results below.

A Scientifically Proven Technique That Causes You To Live Life To The Fullest

A Scientifically Proven Technique That Causes You To Live Life To The Fullest

[The subject of this post seemed very appropriate for the last day of the 30 Day Blog Challenge as you’ll see by the end.]

Almost everyone wants to be happier.  But unfortunately the things that make us happy today become habitual and lose their ability to lift our moods – a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation.

Gratitude exercises can often help us to overcome this adaptation.  But there’s an even more powerful technique for increasing happiness discovered by Dr Jaime L. Kurtz.  I describe her research below.

She got together 67 students from the University of Virginia who were about 6 weeks away from graduating.  She divided them into three groups.

One group was to write about why they are grateful for various college experiences given that they have “a lot of time left.”

Another group was told to write why they are grateful for various college experiences given that they have “little time left.”

A third control group was told to write about what they do on a typical day.

At the end of the study the group that wrote about gratitude from the perspective of having little time left was happier.


One reason may be that they savored the remaining experience of college more.  Another reason may be even more powerful.  They actually engaged in more college activities during those final weeks.

Kurtz concluded that thinking that those last 6 weeks was a short time caused them to have a “now or never” mindset.  So they spent more time with friends and did more activities because they knew they wouldn’t get a chance later. In short, the lived the end of their college life to the fullest.

And this may be why they were so much happier than the other groups.

So to increase your enjoyment of life experiences focus on the fact that they will one day end.  Think about how little time you have left to do something and not only will you appreciate it more, but you may take actions that you’d regret not having taken later on.

So since this is the end of this post, and the end of me posting every day for the Thirty Day Blog Challenge, why not leave me a comment.  You might be glad you did.

Reference to study above:

Psychological Science 2008 Dec;19(12):1238-41.
Looking to the future to appreciate the present: the benefits of perceived temporal scarcity. Kurtz JL.

Why Two Problems Are Better Than One

Why Two Problems Are Better Than One

When you are trying to solve a very difficult problem, you may try to think about only that problem so you can remain focused.  However, research done at Binghamton University in 2007 shows that this may be a mistake.  Sometimes trying to solve two problems can help you come up with solutions you’d never find if you only focused on one problem.

In their study they took 293 students and gave some of them a model problem with a solution first, then one problem to solve.  Another group of students got a model problem with a solution, then 2 problems to solve.

The model problems had a solution that was analogous to the problems that both groups had to solve.

The results: Only 13% of students in the first group that had to solve one problem came up with the solution.  The group with two problems to solve were successful 51% of the time.

Researchers concluded that trying to solve two problems causes you to form generalizations based on previous learning that can help you solve a current problem.  So the second group was able to use what they learned from the previous problem they were shown.

Most people it turns out are not able to quickly see how the solutions of past problems can help them today and that’s why the first group had such a low success rate.

This means that by trying to solve two similar problems today, you can profit from lessons learned in the past more effectively.

The key though is that the two problems you try to solve must have a similar underlying structure.  So to use this idea next time you have a problem you might ask yourself “What’s a similar problem that also needs a solution?”

If you consider that problem in addition to the one you’re working on, you may find that you come up with a solution a lot quicker.

So how will you use this information to solve your next problem?  Please leave me your answers in the comments section below.

An Illusion That Can Prevent You From Achieving Your Goals

An Illusion That Can Prevent You From Achieving Your Goals

Did you know that if something is difficult, we’ll often think it’s important for reaching our goals?  This can actually make it harder to get what we want in life.

Recent research done at the University of Chicago shows why.

Sixty-two college students participated in the study.  Half were primed for the goal of becoming a kinder person and half were not.

Of those primed for the goal of becoming kinder, half were given materials on a non-profit organization called Kids In Danger that were easy to read and another half given materials that were difficult to read.  All participants were asked to donate money to the charity.

Those who had the goal of becoming kinder donated more money when the materials were difficult to read than when they were easy to read.  Also those who did not have the goal of becoming kinder did not donate more money when the materials were hard to read.


The researchers noted that past studies show that people associate effort with things that will help them achieve their goals.  And they also do the reverse: If something takes effort they think it must be helpful in achieving their goals.

So participants who wanted to become kinder people thought that Kids In Danger would be more helpful in achieving that goal when the information they were given was harder to read.

Why is this important to know?

Because without realizing it, we often think that a hard path to achieving our goals is the most fruitful.  This is not always the case.

A recent example of this is a friend of mine who spends many hours at the gym yet isn’t getting the results he’s looking for.  I told him of a fitness program that may get him better results in much less time.

He told me “It can’t be that easy.”  And dismissed the idea totally.

While I can’t say that this other fitness program would guarantee him the results he wants, I do know that just because it takes less time (and less effort) doesn’t mean it won’t produce better results.

What examples do you have of people (yourself included) who’ve taken a hard road to achieving their goals when an easier approach was available?

I’d love to hear your answers and any other comments you have below.

Reference to study above:

Psychological Science 2009 Jan;20(1):127-34.
The “instrumentality” heuristic: why metacognitive difficulty is desirable during goal pursuit. Labroo AA, Kim S.