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How Broken Streaks Sap Motivation

Research suggests that streaks motivate, but broken streaks demotivate.

Key points

  • Keeping up a streak can be motivating above and beyond the task itself.
  • Breaking a streak can be demotivating (at least in the short term).
  • People will perform costly behaviors to fix a broken streak.

Gamification continues to be a strategy that is used in a variety of areas to motivate people toward a behavior. One of the powerful tools in this arsenal is keeping track of streaks of behavior.

For example, I have a few pieces of Peloton equipment, and they track how many days in a row you have done some kind of class that they offer. They even highlight streaks of a particular length (like 10 days) to give you additional positive feedback.

A reason why these streaks are powerful motivators is that people are easily induced to adopt the goal to keep up the streak. If that streak is tied to a virtuous behavior (like exercise), then it provides additional energy to maintain a desirable behavior even on days when someone might not feel like doing the desirable behavior.

While maintaining a streak may create motivation, what happens when that streak is broken? That question was explored in a paper by Jackie Silverman and Alixandra Barasch published in a 2023 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. These authors theorized that if people are truly adopting a goal to maintain a streak, then having that streak broken will be demotivating and may lead people to avoid the behavior after the broken streak.

The authors tested this using clever designs in which participants all engaged in the same behavior, and what differed was only whether a recorded streak was maintained.

For example, in one study, participants were given an exercise app designed along the lines of many popular fitness apps. Participants did a series of three bodyweight strength exercises and got a checkmark on a streak for each one. After doing a fourth strength exercise, some participants received a fourth check mark, while others were told that there was a temporary glitch in the system and their exercise was not logged, so they received an X rather than a check indicating a broken streak.

All participants were then given a chance to do another strength exercise or to shift to a stretching exercise. About 66 percent of participants chose to do another strength exercise when their streak remained intact, but only about 58 percent did another strength exercise when the streak was broken. So, there was a small, but reliable tendency for people to shift away from a behavior after a streak was broken.

This finding was replicated in several studies that extended the basic finding in different ways and with different kinds of behaviors (like language learning). In a few studies, the authors included a condition in which there was no log keeping track of the streaks. In those conditions, participants did not adopt the goal to maintain a streak (as measured by ratings that the researchers got from participants). They found that relative to this baseline, participants were more likely to engage in the behavior when it would maintain a streak but less likely to engage in it when it would break the streak.

Other studies also demonstrated that participants would engage in costly behaviors to repair a broken streak. For example, participants might be willing to watch an advertisement in order to have a broken streak repaired, suggesting that the streak had value for them.

This set of studies suggests that the power of streaks to engage motivation can have a downside. If breaking a streak demotivates people, then you may inadvertently drive people away from a behavior when the streak is broken. That said, it is interesting that there is value in enabling people to repair a streak, and people will engage in costly behaviors like watching ads to repair a streak.

Of course, these studies looked at very short streaks in a simple laboratory experiment. It is less clear how people will feel about streaks that are extended over longer periods of time. Of course, it is interesting to see how some companies have dealt with the prospect that broken streaks may be demotivating.

Peloton, for example, has two different streaks. They count daily streaks of activities, but they also have a weekly streak in which you get credit for doing at least one activity in a given week. In this way, even if people are somewhat demotivated by having a daily streak broken, there may be energy to keep up the weekly streak that can get people back to doing classes. More research will have to explore these more complicated conditions to better understand their motivational influences.


Jackie Silverman , Alixandra Barasch, On or Off Track: How (Broken) Streaks Affect Consumer Decisions, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 49, Issue 6, April 2023, Pages 1095–1117,

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