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Automatic Drive: How Unconscious Cognitive Biases Help Fire Our Motivation


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A trick of the unconscious is responsible for spurring us on to difficult goals.

It feels daunting when we draw the bow across a violin for the first time or start learning to samba, or pick up our first stuttering words in a foreign language. The ultimate goal of being able to dance, speak French or play the violin seems a long way off.

There is a strong temptation to give up and try other goals, perhaps less challenging ones. So how do we motivate ourselves to keep going?

Consciously we can use these 11 goals hacks described in a previous article. But our unconscious also chips in to change our perceptions and help us on our way, as revealed by an ingenious new study (Huang et al., 2012).

Collect 1,000 t-shirts

In the study participants were told they were going to be involved in an ongoing effort to collect 1,000 t-shirts to send to refugees in Haiti. They were told about the desperate state of refugees there, including their lack of basic clothing.

Then they were split into two experimental groups* by being shown two different pictures of the project’s progress so far:

  • Some were shown two full boxes of t-shirts, suggesting there was lots more work to do and,
  • The others were shown 10 full boxes of t-shirts, suggesting they were much nearer their goal.

Crucially, each group was asked to estimate how many t-shirts had already been collected in these boxes.

The group that were shown the two boxes simulated the feeling we get at the start of a big project, i.e. that there is still a lot of work to do.

So how did the participants cope with this? It turned out that they over-estimated the number of t-shirts that had already been collected. In fact, in comparison to an unmotivated control group who thought there were, on average, 92 in the box, those who were committed to the task estimated there were 220 t-shirts.

This over-estimation made them feel that the goal was more attainable.

Almost there?

The group that were shown the 10 boxes were simulating the experience of being close to achieving our goal.

So how did participants keep themselves motivated when there was much less work to do? You guessed it: they under-estimated the number of t-shirts in the box. The control group guessed an average of 617, while the motivated participants guessed 424.

By under-estimating their progress when they were near the end of the task, highly motivated people are able to push themselves on harder towards the end when the temptation is to slack off.

The experimenters checked this finding using other tasks. They got the same types of results again. When people are highly motivated to achieve a task, they over-estimate their progress at the beginning and under-estimate it at the end. This helps provide us with the psychological energy to keep us going through the task.

This effect has been most noticeable to me towards the end of large projects. Even when I’m nearing the finish line, it feels like I’ve still got a fair way to go. Then when I’m finished it takes me by surprise.

Automatic motivation

This finding is heartening because sometimes these subtle cognitive biases work against our best interests, like in the Dunning-Kruger effect and the worse-than-average effect, but here they’re working for us.

In both cases participants’ minds were warping what they were seeing to give them extra motivation. Although strictly speaking they were less accurate, it’s all in the service of achieving something more important: reaching that vital goal.

This is one great example of the way our cognitive biases can be extremely handy for us.

This finding is fascinating because it’s demonstrating how sometimes getting precise information about our progress can actually reduce motivation.

For example if you’re on the running machine at the gym and you’ve just started your workout, then the fact that the display tells you exactly how far you’ve got to go leaves no room for these helpful unconscious biases to operate.

Sometimes it really is better not to know. Instead let your unconscious give you a helping hand on towards your goal.

[*Please note that I have simplified the design of the study for clarity]

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The Secrets of Motivation

→ This post is part of a series on the secrets of motivation: