Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Motivation and the middle

Why does motivation flag in the middle of a task?

Progress bar

Progress bars measure progress from the start.

Middles can be hard.  Wednesday has become "hump day" to recognize that we don't have the energy that we got from a good weekend any more, but we can't quite look forward to the weekend.  College students get their Spring Break in March after the initial excitement of the semester has worn off, but the panic of impending finals hasn't kicked in yet.

 What makes middles so hard to deal with?

 A paper by Andrea Bonezzi, Miguel Brendl, and Matteo DeAngelis in the May, 2011 issue of Psychological Science demonstrates that middles are hard, because people switch their frame of reference as a task goes on.  At the beginning, you focus on how far you have come, and that is quite motivating.  Eventually, though, it becomes difficult to notice additional progress.  When you can't see your progress any more, your motivation flags, until you get near the end. At that point, you shift your focus to what you have left to do.  As you get nearer to the end, this comparison motivates you to finish. 

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 This view suggests that your motivation depends on whether you are currently focused on how far you have come or how far you have to go.

 In one study, participants were given $15 at the end as payment for their time.  They were asked if they would be interested in donating to a charity that was hoping to collect $300.  People were told about the progress collecting money so far.  Some people got that information in terms of the amount of money collected.  Others got the information in terms of the amount of money that remained to be collected.  Finally, the study varied whether the amount of money collected so far was small, in the middle, or large.

Nearly there

As you get closer to a goal, motivation goes up.

When people were given information about how much money was collected so far, they gave the most money when only a small amount had been collected compared to what they gave when the progress was in the middle or near the end.  When they got information about how much remained to be given, people gave more when the charity was close to the goal rather than in the middle or far from the goal. 

 These results demonstrate that people's motivation changes with the frame of reference they are using.

 In a final study, the authors looked at people's motivation to do a boring proofreading task.  They had to proofread 9 documents.  Some people got a progress bar showing how many they had done so far.  Some got a progress bar showing how many documents were yet to be completed.  A third group knew that they were going to do 9 essays, but they just had a marker showing where they were in the task.

 The group that had a progress bar showing how far they had come from the start was most effective at proofreading (as measured by the number of typos they found per second) when they were near the beginning of the task than as they progressed.  The group that had a progess bar showing how much remained to be done was most effective as they neared the end of the task. 

 Of interest, the group that did not have a frame of reference that focused on either the beginning or the end of the task was effective on the first few and last few documents, but performed worst in the middle.

 This result suggests that people shift their frame of reference as a task goes on.  They start by focusing on how far they have come and then shift to focusing on what remains to be completed.  This pattern leads to the lowest levels of motivation in the middle of the task.

 So, what can you do when you are stuck in the middle?

 One way to keep up your motivation in long tasks is to provide yourself with more landmarks along the way.  Those landmarks can be used to help motivate you to complete sections of the task rather than having a long stretch in the middle where it is difficult to see your progress.

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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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