Tag Archives: Motivation

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.

Why do we do the things we do? A new study says it comes down to four factors

A new study reports that there are four broad categories for the motivations that drive human behavior: prominence, inclusiveness, negativity prevention, and tradition.

Image via Pixabay.

What do people want? That’s a question psychologists have been trying to answer for a long time now, albeit with little agreement on the results so far. In an attempt to put the subject to rest, a team led by researchers at the University of Wyoming (UW) Department of Psychology looked at goal-related words used by English speakers. They report that human goals can be attributed to one of four broad categories: “prominence,” “inclusiveness,” “negativity prevention” and “tradition.”

What makes us tick

“Few questions are more important in the field of psychology than ‘What do people want?,’ but no set of terms to define those goals has gained widespread acceptance,” says UW Associate Professor Ben Wilkowski, the paper’s first author.

“We decided the best way to address the issue was to examine the words that people use to describe their goals, and we hope our conclusions will help bring about an ultimate consensus.”

The team started with a list of more than 140,000 English nouns, which they whittled down to a set of 1,060 that they deemed most relevant to human goals. They then carried out a series of seven studies in which they quizzed participants on their commitment to pursue goals. After crunching all the data, the team reports that human motivation is built on four main components (when it’s not drugs):

  • Prominence: these goals revolve around power, money making ability, mastery over skills, perfection, and glory. All in all, these motivators underpin our pursuit of social status and our desire to earn respect, admiration, and the deference of others through our achievements.
  • Inclusiveness: this represents our drive to be open-minded, tolerant, and accepting of other people, opposing views, different lifestyles, and values. In short, goals in this category revolve around accepting people of all types.
  • Negativity prevention: while the other categories on this list push us towards a goal, negativity prevention is aimed at pushing away undesirable outcomes. It includes goals meant to avoid conflict, disagreement, isolation, or social discord. In short, it’s our desire to keep the peace in the group and avoid personal pain.
  • Tradition: such goals revolve around our desire to uphold long-standing institutions or features of the culture we belong to. Religious affiliation and zeal, attitudes towards family and nation, cultural customs, attitudes towards other social groups are in large part shaped by the culture that raised us, and we each feel the need to nurture and pass on these cultural institutions — to a lesser or greater extent.

The more rebellious of you may have noticed that all these categories are externally-focused — the team did as well. Wilkowski says that the findings point to most of human motivation being “overwhelmingly social in nature,” adding that “the ‘need to belong’ and our ultra-social nature are reflected in all four categories.”

It has to be said, by this point, that the studies only addressed the English language as used within American culture. The team believes that their four categories apply to other industrialized cultures as well, but until that’s proven, they won’t say for sure.

“For example, ‘church’ would not serve as a good marker of tradition in non-Christian cultures; and ‘fatness’ would not serve as a good marker of negativity prevention in cultures where starvation is a larger concern than obesity,” they wrote.

“Nonetheless, we suggest that the deeper concepts underlying these four constructs are relevant to the human condition more generally — at least as experienced in large, industrialized cultures.”

The paper “Lexical derivation of the PINT taxonomy of goals: Prominence, inclusiveness, negativity prevention, and tradition” has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

No Fun Allowed.

Researchers identify neurons that shut down rewards and motivation in the brains of mice

New research is pushing mice to their breaking point to see what our brain does as we give up.

No Fun Allowed.

Image credits Lagrevehumaine / Wikimedia.

A group of cells known as nociceptin neurons get busy when we’re giving up, new research shows. True to their name, these neurons release nociceptin, a complex molecule that suppresses dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that underpins the brain’s pleasure and reward networks. The findings offer us a fresh take on the processes that govern motivation.


“We are taking an entirely new angle on an area of the brain known as VTA [ventral tegmental area],” said co-lead author Christian Pedersen, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the UW College of Engineering. “The big discovery is that large complex neurotransmitters known as neuropeptides have a very robust effect on animal behavior by acting on the VTA,” said Pedersen.

Nociceptin neurons are located near the VTA, a brain area that houses the hormones that release dopamine during pleasurable activities. This study took four years to complete and, according to the team, is the first one to describe the effects of the nociceptin modulatory system on dopamine neurons. The team hopes their findings will lead to new ways of helping people find motivation when they are depressed or decrease motivation for drug use in substance-abuse disorders.

The team worked with mice that they trained to seek out sucrose (sugar). To do this, the animals had to poke their snout into a port. The team set-up their experiment in such a way that this task was very simple and straight-forward at first: one poke, one reward. Over time, however, it would take exponentially more pokes (two, five, so on) to get the reward — and eventually, the animals just gave up. All the while, the team monitored the mice’s neural activity.

These recordings showed that the nociceptin neurons act as ‘demotivators’ or ‘frustration’ neurons and became most active when mice stopped seeking sucrose — suggesting they put the brakes on motivation.

“We might think of different scenarios where people aren’t motivated like depression and block these neurons and receptors to help them feel better,” says senior author Michael Bruchas, professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine and of pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“That’s what’s powerful about discovering these cells. Neuropsychiatric diseases that impact motivation could be improved.”

The team explains that these neurons exist as a kind of insurance policy for mammals living in the wild. The reward pathways in our brains work to make us mammals maintain homeostasis (i.e. our internal ‘optimal running conditions’). However, in the wild, animals need a safety switch to keep them from pursuing rewards too much, as the environment tends to have limited resources and this pursuit of reward could impact the animal’s survival by expending too much energy, for example. Persistence in seeking uncertain rewards can also be disadvantageous due to risky exposure to predators, the researchers noted.

The paper “A Paranigral VTA Nociceptin Circuit that Constrains Motivation for Reward” has been published in the journal Cell.

Trying to stay motivated? Shift your strategy from ‘do better’ to ‘avoid worse’ mid-game

Ah, loss of motivation — the bane of my waistline and school projects the world over. How come it’s so easy to pick up, say, jogging, but absolute hell to pull through after you’ve already bought the shoes and pants? It’s just not fair.

Image credits Shon Ejai.

Well, researchers from the universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba might have the answer. They found that it’s not so much an issue of waning motivation — but one of shifting sources of motivation as we progress towards completion of our goal.

Do more — Waste less


The team’s theory was that in the early stages of pursuing a goal (when you decide to take up jogging, or pottery, or in my case swimming), people would be primarily motivated by hopes, aspirations, and the positive outcome they expect from reaching that goal. So if you want to lose weight, for example, at first you’d be motivated to exercise because you’d imagine yourself looking thinner, being healthier, and so on. This mindset is known as “promotion motivation” as it makes people feel more excited about things they can do to make a progress towards their goal — such as working out more or changing to a better diet.

But the researchers predicted that as you take steps towards that goal, you inch into a “prevention motivation” mindset. After the initial bout of go-getter attitude, we start seeing our goal as a series responsibilities or duties and gain motivation from a desire to avoid falling back on our progress. So if you set your goal as “lose 10 pounds” and are getting close to that, your priorities shift from doing ‘good’ things (exercising more) towards avoiding ‘wrong’ ones (eating too much dessert).

To test this theory, the team conducted a series of five experiments. Some were scenario-based while others involved an actual goal-pursuit task that participants were asked to perform. Participants were randomly assigned to different conditions (early/late goal progress) and their perception of progress towards the end goal was manipulated to see how their strategy adapted. Those assigned to the early goal progress (EGP) condition felt they were less than halfway towards reaching their goal, while those in the late goal progress (LGP) condition felt they were more than halfway through. The team employed a variety of measures to assess if promotional or prevention strategies “best-characterized participants’ motivation” in each condition.

A matter of perspective

The results showed that participants in the EGP focused primarily on promotional motivation, while their counterparts relied on preventional strategies. It comes down to our point of reference, the team explains.

“When we begin working on a goal, we rely on our initial (starting) state as a reference point. In other words, in order to assess goal progress, we compare where we are en route to goal attainment to where we started. This shows us how much we have done so far—the extent of our attainment—which produces a focus on positive outcomes and leads us to assume a promotion focus,” the team writes.

“As we make progress and move into later stages of goal pursuit (beyond the midpoint), we switch our reference point to the desired end state of goal pursuit. In other words, we begin to assess goal progress by comparing where we are en route to goal attainment to where we want to be upon completion. This makes us focus on how much we have yet to do—the extent of our shortcoming—which produces a focus on negative outcomes and leads us to assume a prevention focus.”

In a way, it makes sense. You decide what your goal is and your brain goes ‘Ok I can make that happen,’ then motivates you to work towards it. As you get close to that point, the brain says ‘Good enough’ because it’s impressively lazy, and focuses on keeping the status quo.

You can use the findings to hack yourself into better pursuing your goals. When you feel that demotivational wall creeping in, consider shifting your priorities from promotional to preventional practices. Let’s say you’re saving money for an iPhone/health insurance. Initially, you’ll be naturally inclined to go after positive saving strategies, such as nailing down extra income. As you’re getting close to your goal, focus on avoidance strategies — such as cutting expenses.

“Generally speaking, people in North America are predominantly promotion-focused, so they are good at starting goals, but not as good at accomplishing them,” says Olya Bullard, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada and lead author of the study.

“My hope is that these findings will help people attain their goals.”

The paper “How Goal Progress Influences Regulatory Focus in Goal Pursuit” has been published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Reading in forest

Peer to your peers for motivation, not your teachers, if you actually want to study

If you need motivation to study look to your peers, not your professors, new research from Michigan State University says. The paper found that students get much better results in school when incentive is provided by their colleagues rather than teachers.

Reading in forest

Image credits Sasin Tipchai.

Studying is good for you. It’s also really hard to get yourself to do it, to the point where ‘procrastination’ has almost become synonymous with ‘student’. So every bit of motivation helps, a fact which has not eluded professors the world over who try to nudge their students as best as possible towards working hard.

But teachers’ efforts to tell students why they should study and how much it will benefit them may be why they’re so bad at getting their studying on, a new paper argues.

“These findings suggest that what instructors were good at was getting across cold facts, while the peers seemed to be tapping into an identification process,” said study co-author Cary Roseth, associate professor of educational psychology.

“In other words, as a student, I can identify with my peers and imagine myself using the course material in the same way they do. This gives the material meaning and a sense of purpose that goes beyond memorization. When I hear a peer’s story, it connects to the story I am telling myself about who I want to be in the future.”

The team conducted their investigation during an online college course. Enrollment for the courses has grown dramatically over the past decade, with more than 7 million (more than a third of) U.S. higher-education students today having enrolled in at least one such course, the authors note. In this setting, the team wanted to see what effect peer and instructor rationales had on motivating the students to follow up on their courses. It is the first study to investigate this link between student outcome and source of motivation.

They chose the introductory-level educational psychology course at the MSU, which is required of all teacher education students. The team randomly assigned students to receive either a ‘peer rationale’, an ‘instructor rationale’, or no rationale whatsoever for why the course was important and how it could benefit their careers in the future.

Peer motivation

The peer and instructor rationales were scripted and identical, the only difference was that of context — i.e. where the students thought it originated.

By the end of the semester, the group who had received the peer rationale had an average score of 92 percent. Students in the instructor rationale group had an average of 86 percent. But most strikingly, students who received no rationale got an average final grade of 90 percent, higher than the instructor-motivated group.

“We found that receiving the instructor rationale led to lower final grades than both the peer rationale and no rationale conditions,” Roseth said.

“This gives support to the idea that, motivationally, the fact that instructors control grades, tell the students what do to, and so on, may be working against their efforts to increase their students’ appreciation of why the class is important.”

So does this mean that well-intended teacher motivation actually dooms students to a life of average final grades? Not necessarily. It’s the first study of its kind to be performed, and it only had a small sample size of 59 undergraduate students to work with. It’s also tricky to expand findings from online courses to traditional ones, in my view, as they may not yet have that ‘real class’ feel courses in school or university have.

But until more research can confirm or deny the results, better stay safe — let the kids motivate one another, or just pretend to be one of them on-line and whip up some enthusiasm. I guess that works too.

The paper “Effects of peer and instructor rationales on online students’ motivation and achievement” has been published in the International Journal of Educational Research.


Memories for opposing behaviors are stored in the same parts of the brain, study finds

The same brain region can both motivate us to undertake a learned behavior or suppress it altogether, a new study found. The results will help us better understand how our brain stores memories and how they’re called upon when needed.


Image credits Gerd Altmann / Pixabay.

While there is a general consensus that different memories are stored in different areas of the brain, there has been a lot of debate if each area can hold contradicting memories — those that control opposing behavior. For example, are the behaviors for a red or green traffic light encoded in the same area of the brain?

Pushing both ways

Questions like this one may seem a bit like nit-picking, but they’re actually really important in understanding us and our minds. Memories make us who we are. They’re also what the brain relies on to decide when and whether to take an action. So scientists are obviously keen on understanding how they work.

A new study from The Scripps Research Institute comes to answer this question. It is the first to offer proof that the same brain region can both motivate and suppress the same learned behavior.

“We behave the way we do in a specific situation because we have learned an association — a memory — tying an environmental cue to a behavior,” said Nobuyoshi Suto, TSRI Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience and co-author of the study.

“This study provides causal evidence that one brain region can store different memories.”

Suto’s work focuses on the brain structures that control motivation. For the study, he and the team trained rats to press a lever to get a reward of sugar water. After they got this down (the rats caught on pretty fast) the researchers further trained the animals to recognize two colored lights: green if the reward was available when pressing the lever, red if they would receive none. The rats quickly started adjusting their behavior after training in response to the colors. They pressed the lever more often when the green light was on, and didn’t bother with it when the red one was shining.

Based on previous electrophysiology studies, the team suspected that the mice’s brains stored both sessions of training they received in a region of the brain called the infralimbic cortex.

“We’ve seen correlational evidence, where we see brain activity together with a behavior, and we connect the dots to say it must be this brain activity causing this behavior,” said Suto.

“But such correlational evidence alone cannot establish the causality — proof that the specific brain activity is directly controlling the specific behavior.”

A weapon against addiction

The scientists then started systematically switching off specific groups of brain cells, or ‘neural ensembles’. These ensembles react to ques signaling if the reward is available or not. With the neurons inactivated, the rats didn’t perform any of the behavior encoded in the memories of those ensembles.

This proves that distinct neural ensembles in the same region of the brain directly control reward-seeking behavior or its suppression. Suto called the findings a step towards understanding how different memories are stored in the brain. He says the findings could help battle addiction by discovering which neurons are activated to motivate or prevent drug relapse.

In the future, he’d like to look at what other brain regions these infralimbic cortex neurons may be communicating with. In addition, he also would like to determine the brain chemicals mediating the promotion or suppression of reward seeking.

The full paper “Distinct memory engrams in the infralimbic cortex of rats control opposing environmental actions on a learned behavior” has been published in the journal eLife.