Just recently, the Today show ran a segment about a perplexing phenomenon: some people think their Fitbits are making them fat. A growing mob of disgruntled “Fitbitters” is venting about this strange problem online via social media, fitness websites, and similar forums. The complaints vary in their specifics, but their gist is generally the same – somebody buys one of those cool new-fangled step-counting wristbands, tries it out, and finds that instead of shedding pounds, the number on the scale actually goes up.
With a little pondering, it’s easy to come up with explanations for why people using Fitbits are gaining weight. Just because you know how many steps you’re taking doesn’t mean you’ll actually use that information to exercise more or eat better. Plus, even among those individuals who do exercise more, some probably counteract any gains they make by eating more. As the Today Show segment rightly notes, even the best fitness monitors do not count calories perfectly. And finally, there are pretty important differences from person to person in how many calories need to be consumed and expended for weight loss to occur – the simple rule that to lose weight you just need to burn more calories than you consume is, sadly, too simple.
Nevertheless, the story highlighted something really interesting about a topic I think about a lot: the complex ways that feedback about our goal pursuit affects our motivation. By “feedback”, I mean any information about goal progress that comes from an external source. It could be something as simple as seeing a number on a scale, or having a friend comment that you’ve lost weight, or it could be the more comprehensive data on energy exertion and consumption provided by a high-tech, wearable fitness monitor, like the Fitbit. The reason for malcontent among the growing mob of expanding Fitbitters is the expectation that feedback is useful by nature; that knowing how many steps you’ve walked, or how many calories you’ve consumed will surely be motivating. Knowledge is power, right? It turns out, of course, not to be so simple. For example, it’s entirely plausible that individuals receiving information about how many steps they’ve taken in a given day might use that information as license to slack off, despite the fact that they aren’t walking any more than usual. How you interpret the feedback you receive is critical in determining whether you work harder or less hard on your goals in the future.
One notable point here is that feedback typically isn’t neutral – it often triggers a positive or negative emotional response. Stepping on the scale to discover you’ve lost weight feels good, whereas seeing that you’ve gained weight doesn’t feel especially good at all. Furthermore, your emotional responses to the feedback you get about your goal progress affect how you behave in the future. The really oversimplified version suggests that positive feedback is motivating, and negative feedback is demotivating. Successfully losing weight should inspire you to work hard in the future, whereas gaining weight might discourage you from continuing with your weight loss efforts. Focusing purely on the informative value of feedback from a fitness monitor can make it easy to overlook the motivational value of that feedback, which is usually there whether or not you’re aware of it.
But that was the oversimplified version. Positive feedback is not always motivating, just as negative feedback is not always discouraging. As I noted above, positive feedback might sometimes be viewed as an excuse for loafing. Likewise, negative feedback might not be discouraging, but rather be taken as an indication that more effort is required in the future. Ayelet Fishbach, a researcher from the University of Chicago, and her colleagues suggest that the key is whether you believe the feedback contains information about goal progress or goal commitment. On the one hand, you can interpret feedback as information about goal progress, telling you how close you are to achieving your goal. Losing weight might indicate that you’re closer to your goal than you were before. On the other hand, you can interpret feedback as information about goal commitment, in other words how much you value a goal and how strongly you believe you are to achieve it eventually. Rather than indicating progress toward a particular goal, losing weight can be taken as support for your broader weight loss ambitions, and an indication that you can probably lose weight in the future if you stick to it.
According to Fishbach’s research, which interpretation you adopt determines whether you find positive or negative feedback motivating. When positive feedback is interpreted as information about goal progress, it indicates that sufficient progress has been made, which in turn licenses a reduction in effort in the future. However, when positive feedback is interpreted as information about goal commitment, it indicates that a particular goal is worthwhile and leads to increased effort in the future. As Fishbach puts it, “…a math student who receives a high test score and infers that she likes math will work harder as a result, whereas a classmate who receives similar positive feedback and infers sufficient progress will relax his efforts…” (Fishbach, Eyal, & Finkelstein, 2010, pp. 519). Negative feedback is similarly open to interpretation. When someone takes negative feedback as a signal of a lack of commitment, it leads that person to disengage from that goal and reduce effort. However, when negative feedback is merely construed as a sign that insufficient progress has been made, it leads individuals to redouble their efforts and work harder. The bottom line is that either positive or negative feedback can be motivating depending on how it is interpreted. Positive feedback is motivating when it signals commitment to a goal (“Yeah, I’m all about this weight loss thing!”) and negative feedback is motivating when it signals insufficient progress has been made (“Hmm, not what I was hoping for, time to step it up!”)
The take-away message is this: merely monitoring goal progress is not in itself a good or bad thing. Knowing how many steps you take or calories you burn is only helpful if that information motivates you to work harder or eat better, and that is determined by how you interpret the feedback. The tendency to think of feedback, such as the information provided by Fitbits and similar devices, as pure, emotionless information belies the complex way in which feedback is interpreted. People tend to interpret feedback information as either good or bad, which in turn has implications for their motivation toward that goal in the future. Perhaps the key to maximizing the benefit from your Fitbit, then, is to be aware of how you (implicitly or explicitly) evaluate the feedback you receive and to try to interpret it in a productive way. If you discover you’re doing well—that’s good! Your goal must be important to you, keep going! And if you discover that you’re not making as much progress as you’d like—step it up! It just means you’ve got more work to do.
Fishbach, A., Eyal, T., & Finkelstein, S. R. (2010). How positive and negative feedback motivate goal pursuit. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(8), 517-530.