The Science Of Motivation
Whether you are trying to lose 20 pounds,
get that promotion at work, or quit smoking,
sticking to your goal isn’t an easy task
– after all, 45% of people drop their New
Year’s resolutions after one month. So why
is it so difficult to keep motivated – and
how can science help us achieve what we’re
In one MIT study, students were given two
types of tasks. In the first they had to hit
2 keys on a keyboard as many times as possible
in 4 minutes, and those that did it the fastest
would receive money. For some the reward was
$300 while the others only $30. Interestingly,
performance was 95% greater in the high $300
group, highlighting how money can be a motivator.
But in the second task the same students were
asked to solve a more complex math problem,
and this time, those offered the high reward
performed 32% slower than the small reward
group. This is known as the ‘distraction
effect’ – when we are given a task that
requires problem solving, economic or emotional
pressure can cause focus to shift to the motivator,
ultimately dividing your attention and reducing
When we look inside the brains of individuals,
fMRI scans reveal that people who complete
a challenge for fun, and people who do it
for a reward show similar activity throughout
the brain. But interestingly, if those offered
a reward the first time are asked to participate
again for no reward, scans show a decrease
in activity in the anterior striatum and prefrontal
areas; parts of the brain linked to self-motivation.
It seems that rewards may cancel out our natural
sense of play.
So how does this apply to you? Well, it turns
out that ‘play’ is the strongest motivator
for sustained behavioural changes. It makes
sense that we stick with enjoyable activities,
but considering 67% of gym memberships go
unused it seems most of us are picking the
wrong activities to achieve our goals. You
might burn the most calories on a treadmill,
but not if you stop doing it after 2 weeks.
Pick something you actually like doing!
Your goal itself also matters; a study investigating
reasons for exercise found that those focused
on weight loss spent 32% less time exercising
than whose who said they wanted to feel better
in day to day life.
And while it’s always good to have a positive
attitude, optimism may not always be the best
strategy. In a study of 210 females trying
to quit smoking, participants who only imagined
major success with few obstacles were less
likely reduce cigarette consumption. Positive
thoughts can often trick your brain into thinking
you’ve already achieved the goal, giving
you a sense of reward and reducing motivation.
But this doesn’t mean negative thoughts
are good – imagining a goal coming true, and
then thinking through the obstacles that stand
in your way is the best mixed approach. This
is known as ‘mental contrasting’.
Finally, try and avoid the ‘what the hell’
effect. This behaviour was first addressed
when researchers gave dieters varying sizes
of milkshakes – from small to large- and then
offered them ice cream afterwards. It turns
out, those who had large milkshakes also ended
up eating more ice cream because ‘what the
hell – I’ve already ruined my diet, I might
as well go all out’. Anticipating that you
will have some bumps along the road to success,
whether it be a fitness goal, quitting smoking
or work aspirations, will bring your closer
to making your goals a reality.
Want some tips for motivation with short term
goals? Like that assignment that is due tomorrow?
Check out our latest AsapTHOUGHT video on
the best tips to overcome that lazy feeling.
Link in the description.
Special thanks to audible for supporting this
episode to give you a free 30 day trial at
audible.com/asap. This week we wanted to recommend
the book ‘No Sweat’ by Michelle Seger,
which translates years of research on exercise
and motivation into simple ideas that aim
to empower you out of exercise failure! You
can get a free 30 day trial at audible.com/asap
and choose from a massive selection! We love
them as they are great when you’re on the
And subscribe for more weekly science videos!