How can we increase people’s motivation to carry out a task? Motivational expert Ayelet Fishbach, a professor in the business school at the University of Chicago, suggests thinking of ways to intervene that will help people choose the right goals, stick with them, balance them with their other tasks and accept help in carrying them out.
Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday on behavioral economics that was co-sponsored by TheMarker, Fishbach laid out four different types of motivation: goal-setting, balancing the goal against other tasks that motivate people, the social setting that can help support the achievement of the goals or at least not hinder, it and helping people persist in achieving the goal.
When it comes to getting people to stick to their goals, Fishbach finds how we light candles during the eight nights of Hanukkah instructive. More about that in a moment, but with regard to selecting the right goals, she said most goals are set due to external factors, while a better predictor of the extent to which people persist in achieving their goals is intrinsic to the goal itself. We may decide, for example, to add carrots to our diet because we think they will help us lose weight, but it’s reasonable to assume that we will only stick to the carrot diet if we think it tastes good.
Fishbach says we can use intrinsic, internal incentives to boost our motivation to accomplish our goals. “We’ve tried to increase the motivation of children in Florida to study math by bringing music, snacks and colored pencils into the school,” she recounted. “When the lesson is made more fun, the students stick to their studying. In addition, when we tell children that food tastes good, they eat more of it than when we tell them it will help make them strong or help them count to 100. Comments of the second type turn the food into a kind of medicine.”
When she presented the part on how to get people to stick with a task, Fishbach focused on the importance of being able to show progress.
“Most of the students who drop out of college in the United States do so in their first or second year, whereas after that they are more committed. Progress increases that commitment, and it’s worth giving people feedback on their progress,” she said.
“You can provide this feedback in two ways: showing them how much they have progressed up to that point, or showing them how much they have left to go. Choosing between the two is important. An experiment conducted at a South Korean advertising agency showed that when we give employees feedback on what they have not yet accomplished for the year, it increases the level of their ambition more than feedback on what they have already managed to do. Nevertheless, it also made people feel less good about their work – because it’s nicer to think about what we’ve already done,’ Fishbach explained.
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“In addition, we tend to start tasks energetically and finish them energetically, but motivation lags around the middle. We asked university students in Be’er Sheva if they stick to lighting candles during Hanukkah. Most of them do it on the first night and on the eighth [last] night, but in the middle of the holiday, they are less persistent. That’s why it’s worth making the middle of a task short.”
On the issue of balancing a task with other goals, Fishbach recommended that it be thought through in a group, which she said makes it possible to better balance various legitimate goals. When we are required to present our choice to our colleagues, we show better self-control and tend not to opt for choices that we would find difficult justifying, she said.
When it comes to a supportive social environment, Fishbach said it’s possible to use the human tendency toward conformity to motivate people to accomplish their goals, but it has to be done wisely. For example, it’s possible to influence electricity consumption by including neighbors’ average consumption on an electricity bill, and it even works for those consuming little electricity compared to their neighbors.
“Nevertheless,” Fishbach said, “it turns out that we are not necessarily conformist when it comes to what other people do in practice, but rather what they would want to do. For example, we attribute more importance to our friends’ ‘likes’ to a video [on Facebook] than the number of actual times the video has been viewed.”