Tag Archives: Feedback

Feedback and setting goals are keystones of keeping us motivated and on-task

While goal-setting can help us keep focused and productive with tasks, receiving feedback is much more effective, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

Everyone has, at one point in their lives, lost motivation for a project they were initially keen on. If you’re the exception, I envy you. But a new paper holds some clues about how we all could have an easier time staying motivated and on the task at hand. According to the findings, receiving feedback in conjunction with reaching individual goals can go a very long way towards keeping us focused and involved with tasks or projects.

The findings can help employers keep their employees happier and more productive, but can also help us in our personal lives.

How to keep at it

“Sustaining one’s attention is notoriously difficult. The longer that an individual performs a task, the worse their performance tends to be,” said Matthew Robison, University of Texas at Arlington assistant professor of psychology and first author of the study. “If you want to encourage people to maintain focus on a task, whether it be learning or job-related, or if you are designing something that you want people to engage with, giving feedback about their performance is a very powerful motivator.”

Having a roadmap of several goals is an effective way to keep us involved with tasks over a longer period of time. Mixing feedback into that process, however, can produce an even more powerful effect, according to new research.

The study involved four rounds of experiments during which participants were asked to perform a simple but attention-intensive task for 30 minutes at a time. Across these different experiments, the researchers tracked how effective three approaches were at increasing the participants’ ability to sustain attention on the task at hand. These approaches were goal-setting, feedback, and incentive manipulations. After each experiment, participants were asked to provide commentary on how motivated and alert they were during the tasks, and to rate their attention levels as either ‘on-task’, ‘wandering’, or ‘absent’.

The first experiment involved task-setting. The results show that having a specific goal in mind helped improve the participants’ ability to sustain their attention over time but didn’t influence their engagement with the task. Task engagement was defined as having higher motivation and lower levels of thoughts unrelated to it.

During the second experiment, the researchers split the task into several time blocks and gave participants feedback at the end of each. The results here showed that the participants had a greater ability to maintain attention and felt greater motivation to complete the task. Feedback, even by itself, was also effective at limiting task-unrelated thoughts, the authors explain.

Incentives by themselves did little to increase either task engagement or performance, they add. Some of the incentives offered to participants during the third step of the study included cash bonuses or early release from the experiment, to mimic the same types of incentives employees are likely to be offered at work.

That being said, participants showed a decline in performance over time during all three experimental stages. As they spent more time with the task, all participants reported feeling less motivated, more fatigued, and that they had a harder time keeping their minds from wandering.

“Even in conditions when people report feeling motivated and engaged, it is difficult to maintain optimal performance, especially if the task is attentionally demanding,” Robison said.

So why are these findings important? It pays to keep in mind that, as humans, we have a set of cognitive limitations that we are forced to work with. This is especially important in settings where constant attention is required, such as for lifeguards or air traffic monitoring. Although important events in such fields are rare, the need for constant vigilance does take a sizable toll on workers, and it can push their attention beyond the limits that individuals can feasibly maintain.

“We need to be cognizant of the level of difficulty involved in sustaining attention when we ask others to perform tasks where they must be attentive for long periods of time,” Robison said. “It is possible that we put ourselves in harm’s way by relying too much on the human attentional system to accomplish feats that may not be achievable.”

The paper “Examining the effects of goal-setting, feedback, and incentives on sustained attention” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.


New neurofeedback system helps people manage arousal and maintain peak performance

When dealing with demanding tasks, the best results come when we’re neither too stressed nor too relaxed. New research from Columbia Engineering (CE) shows, for the first time, how biofeedback loops can be used to keep a participant in that sweet-spot of arousal.


One of the participants during the trial.
Image credits Josef Faller / Columbia Engineering.

Feelings of fear, agitation, or calm can have a profound effect on our ability to make decisions and perform tasks in real-world conditions. You’d have a much easier time walking across a beam that’s a few centimeters or inches off the ground than one tens of feet or meters up in the air. That state of calm would help you traverse the beam faster and with a lower chance of falling off.

This example illustrates how too much arousal can be bad for business. However, too little arousal also impairs our ability to perform tasks, as we’re simply not engaged enough to perform. New research is looking into ways to keep arousal at moderate levels in order to improve performance in difficult sensory-motor tasks, such as flying a plane or driving a car in rough conditions.

The sweet spot

“The whole question of how you can get into the zone, whether you’re a baseball hitter or a stock trader or a fighter pilot, has always been an intriguing one,” says Paul Sajda, professor of biomedical engineering (BME) and a study co-author.

“Our work shows that we can use feedback generated from our own brain activity to shift our arousal state in ways that significantly improve our performance in difficult tasks — so we can hit that home run or land on a carrier deck without crashing.”

The team used a brain computer interface (BCI) to monitor the arousal state of participants in real time via electroencephalography (EEG). The 20 participants were students at CE who were pitted against a virtual-reality aerial navigation task (i.e. a video game where you have to fly planes). As part of the task, participants had to fly the simulated airplane through rectangular boundaries. To further ‘cultivate’ their feelings of stress and arousal, the scenario made the boxes narrower every 30 seconds; this, needless to say, made the students fail the task pretty quickly.

However, the system also generated a neurofeedback signal based on each participant’s state. One of three feedback scenarios (BCI, sham, and silence / no feedback) was randomly assigned to each participant for every new flight attempt. In the BCI conditions, participants heard the sound of a low-rate, synthetic heartbeat. This was actively modulated in loudness, based on the participant’s arousal as measured by the EEG: the higher the arousal levels, the louder the heartbeats became. The sham feedback didn’t take arousal levels into account, while the silence scenario simply offered no feedback at all to the participants.

All in all, the results are encouraging, the team writes. Participants’ task performance in the BCI condition, measured as time and distance over which the subject can navigate before crashing into one of the boundaries, was increased by around 20% compared to the baseline.

“Simultaneous measurements of pupil dilation and heart rate variability showed that the neurofeedback indeed reduced arousal, causing the subjects to remain calm and fly beyond the point at which they would normally fail,” says Josef Faller, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research scientist in BME.

“Our work is the first demonstration of a BCI system that uses online neurofeedback to shift arousal state and improve task performance in accordance with the Yerkes-Dodson law.”

The Yerkes-Dodson law describes the relationship between arousal and performance. Boiled down, it says that performance will increase with arousal up to a point, after which it will quickly start to drop — in other words, there is an ‘optimal’ level of arousal that causes peak performance in any given task. The authors of this present study used their neurofeedback loop to effectively make participants more productive than what their arousal state would predict as based on the Yerkes-Dodson curve.

“What’s exciting about our new approach is that it is applicable to different task domains,” Sajda adds. “This includes clinical applications that use self-regulation as a targeted treatment, such as mental illness.”

The team is also interested in studying whether and how their feedback loop can be used to regulate arousal and emotions for patients with clinical conditions such as PTSD. Another exciting avenue of research that the team is considering is using online arousal and cognitive monitoring in human-robot interactions. In high-stress situations, such as search and rescue operations, supplying the robot information on a human’s arousal state could help it choose its tasks in a way that reduces it’s teammate’s arousal.

“Good human-agent teams, like the Navy SEALS, do this already, but that is because the human-agents can read facial expressions, voice patterns, etc., of their teammates to infer arousal and stress levels,” Sajda says. “We envision our system being a better way to communicate not just this type of information, but much more to a robot-agent.”

The paper “Regulation of arousal via online neurofeedback improves human performance in a demanding sensory-motor task” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


We may be close to runaway climate change, a new paper warns

Strap in, lads and lasses. A new study warns that even if we do everything right from now on, runaway climate change is a real possibility.


Image credits NASA.

Earth risks entering a ‘hothouse’ even if we meet the emission targets set under the Paris accord, an international team of researchers warns. Under such a scenario, global average temperatures will be 4-5℃ (7-9℉) higher than pre-industrial levels, and sea levels will be 10 to 60 meters (33 to 200 feet) higher than today. But, perhaps most worryingly, such a situation would be self-enforcing, with warmer climate driving further environmental changes that heat up the globe.

Run amok

Back in 2016, most of the world’s countries agreed to band together and work to limit climate change to “well below” 2°C (3.6°F) relative to pre-industrial levels — ideally, the document read, we should strive for under 1.5°C. This temperature was chosen as it was believed to be a tipping point for the climate — so common wisdom held that as long as we didn’t exceed that number, we should be fine.

However, the new paper suggests we might not be as safe as we believed using the 2°C mark. This threshold might be enough to trigger other processes that, in turn, will keep driving up temperatures even in the absence of new emissions, the authors report. These include permafrost thaw, the loss of methane hydrates from the ocean floor, weaker land and ocean carbon sinks, the loss of Arctic summer sea ice, the reduction of Antarctic sea ice and polar ice sheets, and a few others we probably don’t even know of yet.

We’re currently just a tad over 1°C above pre-industrial levels. This temperature rising by roughly 0.17°C per decade.

“These tipping elements can potentially act like a row of dominoes. Once one is pushed over, it pushes Earth towards another,” says Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and paper co-author.

“It may be very difficult or impossible to stop the whole row of dominoes from tumbling over. Places on Earth will become uninhabitable if ‘Hothouse Earth’ becomes the reality.”

Rockström’s team — with members from the Stockholm Resilience Center, the University of Copenhagen, Australian National University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research — reviewed existing literature dealing with various feedback processes and write that many of them can serve as ‘tipping elements’.

Natural feedback mechanisms work to amplify themselves. For example, a rainforest helps maintain high humidity and precipitation levels for itself. If someone comes and cuts down the rainforest, however, the ecosystem loses its equilibrium and the feedback mechanism slowly gets weaker. The same process that once promoted humidity eventually gets turned on its head, Rockström explains, driving ever-more arid conditions. Eventually, the rainforest turns into a savanna and releases the carbon stored in its biomass.

If a critical threshold is crossed, they add, several such tipping points will compound all over the globe and lead to abrupt change.

We don’t exactly know where this threshold sits at. It could be very far off — but it could also be just below 2°C.

Avoiding the hothouse state requires more than just slashing greenhouse gas emissions, the paper adds. We need to make a concerted effort, including improved forest, agricultural, and soil management, biodiversity conservation, and carbon storage.

The report hit the presses amid a record-shattering heatwave that gripped Europe, with temperatures recorded in excess of 40°C (104°F). With it came drought and wildfires — including forest fires that claimed the lives of 91 people in Greece in July. Against this backdrop, the warning seems even more critical.

“This paper gives very strong scientific support […] that we should avoid coming too close or even reaching 2 degrees Celsius warming,” Rockström added for Live Science.

The paper “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.