Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

When Is It Good To Choose?

It is best to choose the task you will perform when you have expertise.

High School students often complain about the classes that they are taking. Their course of study is largely laid out for them, and so they have few choices of the subjects they take. The lack of choice can be demotivating. When those students get to college, though, an interesting thing happens. Suddenly, they have almost an infinite amount of choice. They can select the courses they want. At that point, the number of options can feel completely overwhelming. 

So, is it better for your motivation and performance if you are allowed to choose what you want to do or if the choice is made for you?

This question was explored in paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology paper published in 2013 by Erika Patall, Breana Sylvester, and Cheon-woo Han. They suggest that the influence of choice on motivation and performance depends on people’s competence at the task.  When people have some expertise in a task, then they are more motivated when they can choose what they are doing than when the choice is made for them.  When people are not experts, then they are actually most motivated when the choice is made for them.

In one study, participants played a word game in which they had to form as many words as they could from a set of letters given to them. Before playing the game, they were given a test of verbal ability and were randomly assigned to get feedback that they were either among the top or among the bottom scorers on this test. The feedback was designed to manipulate how people felt about their competence at playing these games relative to their peers.

Some participants were given the choice between playing one of two games (which were labeled Text Twist and Boggle), a choice between having games of medium difficulty, or games of a range of easy, medium, and hard difficulty, and a choice between playing rounds for 2-minutes at a time or playing for a total of 20 minutes. Other participants were assigned to a combination of these factors.      

Participants then reported whether they thought they would do well in these games and their motivation to succeed. Afterwards, they did the puzzles. (The two formats and difficulty levels were actually identical, so participants ultimately did all of the same puzzles regardless of the combination they chose or to which they were assigned.)  After completing the games participants were asked how motivated they were to complete the puzzles and how much they enjoyed them. 

The manipulation of competence was successful. People who were given feedback that they scored well on the test of verbal ability rated themselves as more competent at these puzzles than those who were told that they scored poorly. 

Participants who could choose for themselves were more motivated to do the puzzles and performed better when they rated themselves as good at these puzzles than when they saw themselves as bad at them. People who had the choice made for them showed the opposite pattern. They were more motivated and performed better when felt they were bad at puzzles than when they felt they were good at them. 

This pattern is actually reflected in people’s judgments of what they would do in real-life situations.  In another study, participants who performed a survey using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk were asked whether they would prefer to choose a job or be assigned one in a work situation in which they knew they were good at the task or in which they knew they were not so good at it. Participants had a stronger preference to choose their job when it was something they knew they were good at than when it was something they knew they were not good at. 

These findings are valuable for anyone who is managing a group. In order to increase people’s enjoyment of what they are doing and their motivation to continue, it is important to match the freedom they have to choose to the expertise they believe they have. People who see themselves as experts want choice, while those who see themselves as novices prefer to be given an assignment. 

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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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