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10 Surprising Findings in the Science of Motivation



Sometimes, the hardest part of doing is a task is getting yourself motivated to actually start in the first place. How do you inspire that motivation? Science has been exploring what works and what doesn’t for some time now, and can provide some answers to that question. Whether you’re looking to start on a task, carry one through, or just stay motivated day-to-day, here are some of the latest findings on the science of motivation that can help you to understand how motivation works and what will really get you going.

  1. Surrounding yourself with higher performers will motivate you to work harder.

    If you want to work harder, research suggests that the best thing to do is to surround yourself with those who are higher performers than yourself. A recent study at Michigan State University revealed that those who were the “weakest link” on a running relay team (those with the poorest individual times) showed the greatest gains when performing as part of a high-achieving team. Unfortunately, when high performers are put in a group with lower performers, the opposite happens true, with previously top performers getting slower times in a phenomenon researchers call “social loafing.” Research has also shown that you don’t even need to have others physically present to get the motivation their support yields. When researchers teamed people up with virtual exercise partners who performed slightly better, individuals were found to have substantial increases in both motivation and performance.

  2. Shifting attention can keep you motivated longer.

    Most of us have an easier time starting toward a goal than sticking with it until we reach it, but there are research-based ways to keep at it until the end. When tracking your progress toward a goal, you can either focus on how much you’ve done or how much you have left to do. Research has shown that people feel most motivated when they focus on the smaller of the two, which will change as an individual works toward a given objective. This emphasis on progress helps increase motivation, and ensures that goals, whether big or small, get accomplished.

  3. Making things fun can be one of the best motivators.

    As it turns out, time really does fly when you’re having fun, and that fun factor can be an essential part of getting an individual motivated to do something. Yet not all positive feelings associated with doing something are created equal, at least where motivation is concerned. To get the biggest motivational rush, you need to raise your desire or excitement level about an activity, a phenomenon called approach motivation. This kind of enthusiasm can actually change your perception of time, in part because positive feelings of excitement are pushing any conflicting thoughts to the side. Yet research has shown that fun isn’t always the best motivator for every task. Those who value excellence and hard work do better on tasks when they’re reminded of those values, but more poorly when these tasks are presented as fun. Whether or not fun will be your best motivator depends on how enthused you are to do something and your own personality traits, but when it works, it really works.

  4. Money, however, isn’t a good motivator.

    A group of economists from the London School of Economics conducted a study of 51 corporate environments. Their results found that financial incentives can lead to a negative impact on overall performance. A similar study was conducted within a medical facility with similar results: monetary reward schemes could sometimes have positive results but could also have serious negative effects, reducing the intrinsic desire to perform an activity and worsening performance. Career analyst Daniel Pink has also cautioned against using money as a motivator, with his research supporting benefits like recognition, flexible hours, and status as much more motivating than money in the modern workplace.

  5. Penalties aren’t effective motivators either.

    Michigan State University researchers have found that negative reinforcement is a pretty poor way to motivate people to work hard towards a goal. While previous studies have suggested that the threat of a penalty is more effective at getting individuals to work harder, this study found definitively that that simply isn’t the case. Participants in the study worked either under a reward or a penalty system. Those offered rewards exhibited more effort, were more productive while those threatened with penalties seemed to lose motivation and were less productive in their efforts. If you’re looking for motivation for yourself, or trying to motivate others, forget about the consequences and focus on the rewards for the best results.

  6. Brain structure can determine motivation.

    While there are numerous ways to influence our motivation, science has revealed that some people may just be more hardwired for motivation than others. There are a couple of reasons for that, according to recent studies. At the most basic level, scientists believe that there may be a general motivation center in the brain located in the the ventral striatum. The ventral striatum controls motivation for both mental and physical tasks, and is activated at different levels depending on how motivated a person is to complete a task (usually though the offer of some kind of reward). Damage to this part of the brain could potentially affect motivation, but another factor plays a central role as well: the neurotransmitter dopamine. Those who are more motivated to work hard experience a greater release of dopamine in the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, whereas those who are less motivated to work have higher dopamine levels in the part of the brain (the anterior insula) that controls emotion and risk perception. So your level of motivation isn’t just dependent on certain regions of the brain functioning well, but also having dopamine released in those regions.

  7. It’s important to ask, not tell.

    Sometimes, even small distinctions can make a difference in your level of motivation to accomplish a given task. Researchers at the University of Illinois and Southern Mississippi University found that those who ask themselves whether they will perform a task generally do better than those who tell themselves that they will. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that your inner voice would influence motivation, but what’s striking is just how much of a difference a subtle change in phrasing can make. As it turns out, asking rather then telling yourself something significantly raises levels of intrinsic motivation, perhaps because the question creates less stress and more optimism about completing a given task.

  8. What motivates you most depends on what you’re trying to do.

    It turns out that what you find motivating differs not only depending on your own brain structure, but also on what type of action you’re trying to complete. A collaborative study between MIT, U of Chicago, and Carnegie Mellon found that the most effective type of motivation differed depending on whether a skill require mechanical or cognitive skills. For mechanical tasks, a simple reward system worked as an excellent motivator. Yet when tasks required even the most basic of cognitive skills, rewards weren’t as effective, sometimes even leading to poorer motivation and performance. Rewards may work well if you’re trying to get in shape or clean out your closet, but may not help you get pumped to finish your novel.

  9. Motivation isn’t always a good thing.

    Getting amped up to get something done is great, right? Well, not always. New research has shown that being too motivated can actually undermine accomplishing long term goals. As it turns out, when individuals are a little too motivated, they make impulsive decisions that may not always be beneficial, and in fact, may often be quite risky. A better method of motivation? Take that early enthusiasm and focus it on planning and information gathering instead. These behaviors will help you have better self-control and not be so guided by impulses, keeping you on track and motivated for longer.

  10. Motivation is increased in a truly supportive environment.

    According to recent research, you’ll have a lot more motivation to get things accomplished when you’re working in a supporting, loving environment than when you’re made to feel as if your value hinges on accomplishing a certain goal. The findings aren’t especially surprising, but they do underscore the importance of finding a support team that can help you develop intrinsic motivation to accomplish a task. Need an example? Researchers at BGU recently found that young students were much more motivated to do homework when parents focused on the value of learning itself and supported them unconditionally, rather than pushing them to complete assignments or to work for a grade. While the “tough love” method might sometimes work, far more effective are kinder, gentler forms of encouragement and support.

December 5th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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