Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Moving on up: The goal of advancement

Moving up means not being happy where you are.

Moving Up arrow
Moving Up
We have lots of goals in life. Many of them involve some kind of advancement. If you are in school, you set the goal to advance to the next grade or to the next level of your degree. At work, you might aspire to a promotion or to a job with more responsibility. When learning to play a musical instrument, you might dream of learning a more difficult piece of music or to play in a band. Even video games often have a series of levels that you traverse to move through the game. These situations involve what are called hierarchical goals, because you have to move up the ladder to advance to the next goal.

What makes you want to step up to the next level?

This question was addressed in a paper by Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach in a July, 2010 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. These authors pointed out that there are two ways to think about your current level within a goal hierarchy. You could spend your time thinking about what you have accomplished so far in your current position. Alternatively, you could focus on the tasks that you have left to accomplish in that position.

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The general finding of the five studies in this paper is that you are more satisfied with your current position if you focus on the tasks you have accomplished than if you think about what you have left to achieve. However, you are more interested and energized to advance to the next level if you focus your thoughts on what you have left to achieve than if you think about what you have accomplished. The authors demonstrated this point both with experiments in which they created hierarchies of goals within tasks they created in the lab (such as reviewing snippets of music) as well as in studies in which people thought about their current jobs and prospects for advances.

At some level, these findings fit with intuitions about goals. If you think about the future and the tasks that lie ahead of you, it makes sense that would also give you energy to move on to the next level. If you think about the past, then it also seems reasonable that would make you more satisfied with what you have already achieved, and should be less motivating for advancement.

Corporate Ladder
Corporate Ladder
To me, the interesting aspect of these findings is the relationship between satisfaction and motivation. The results suggest that people are most motivated to advance to a new level of the goal hierarchy when they are least satisfied with their current position. This finding suggests why it is so difficult both to enjoy the journey in life and also to achieve your broader aims. When you are happy with what you have achieved, you are just not as interested in moving forward. Our motivational system requires some dissatisfaction to help us to provide the energy to advance.

These experimental results also suggest a way out of this bind. It is possible to shift your focus between what you have accomplished and what lies ahead of you. When you are focused on your accomplishments, you can feel good about the journey, at least temporarily. When you are focused on what is left to achieve, you can feel energized to move into the future. By shifting your focus at different times, you provide yourself with the chance to have some contentment with your life's journey and still have the energy to achieve bigger things.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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