How motivated people see their obstacles?goals . motivation explained
Time for a confession: How motivated are you? Think about something you recently wanted to achieve. What happened when you got tired or faced a temptation? If obstacles easily distract you, you might be less committed than you thought. A recent study showed that people differ in how they see the obstacles, depending on the strength of their commitment.
Have you ever tried giving up on sweets? Or following a nutritious, plant-based diet? With the start of the New Year or any new stage in our lives, we are keen on new habits. On top of that, the media seduces us with the goals “just within our reach”, varying from a “beach body” to a higher salary. These visions are very appealing. But when you see a cake dripping with chocolate, smell a juicy steak, or plan the talk with your boss, then – suddenly – all your motivation disappears. So is there a way to overcome these obstacles?
Immune to temptation?
Many people succeed in sticking to their diet, exercising, or taking action to progress their careers. Achieving such goals is easier for those who are already committed to them because they will be protected by self-regulation. When highly committed people face a temptation, their goal will automatically pop up in their mind. This, in turn, will make them virtually immune to temptation. However, how to reach a high commitment state?
Goal commitment manipulation
With this question in mind, researchers developed a method to manipulate goal commitment in their experiments: mental contrasting. It works through mobilizing the energy to overcome the obstacle in the current reality. Usually, the obstacle – the desire for the cake or the fear of your boss – can easily smash your commitment. A way to overcome this is to:
1. Think in detail about the best possible outcome from achieving your goal. What will be the best thing about attaining your goal?
2. Think in detail about the critical obstacle. How does the current reality prevent you from reaching this goal?
Answering these questions is also not a magical solution, because it depends on whether you think you’ll be able to reach your goal. The more you expect success, the higher your commitment. But the less you believe in your success, the lower your commitment, as a result of mental contrasting.
Unconscious ban on obstacles
In the recent study, Sandra Wittleder and her colleagues dived into the mechanisms of mental contrasting. They suspected that it triggers an automatic process, through which people evaluate the obstacle negatively. They investigated commitment to interpersonal relationships (Study 1), to performing well in the creativity test (Study 2), and to improving eating habits (Study 3). The mental contrasting group was compared to the reverse contrasting group: thinking about the current reality first and about the desired future second. In this order, the desired future fails to be a reference point for reality. Then, reality cannot be seen as an obstacle and commitment should remain unaffected. Apart from evaluations of the obstacle, researchers also measured commitment and actual performance – eating healthy over two weeks.
Research tricks: measuring unconscious evaluations (NERDS ONLY :O)
To measure the unconscious evaluation of the obstacle, they asked participants to read words (target words) appearing on the screen. Participants indicated, by pressing a designated key, whether the target word was positive or negative. Importantly, other words (primes) appeared before the target words. The primes were either related to the obstacle in the current reality or they were neutral words. Because of the activation spreading in the semantic network, the researchers could interpret reaction times to target words. If participants reacted faster to a negative than to a positive target word after a prime, it meant that they evaluated the prime more negatively. This is because the negative prime paved the way to the negative target word, just like a snowplow, resulting in faster reaction time.
Results (everyone :))
Across all studies, they consistently found the same pattern in the mental contrasting condition: the higher expectations of achieving the goal, the more negative evaluations of the obstacle. In the reverse contrasting group, there was no relationship between expectations of success and evaluation of the obstacle. The last study showed that in the mental contrasting group, high expectations of success led to a more negative evaluation of the obstacle, which translated into feeling more energized. This, in the end, led to higher commitment and ALSO eating more healthy over two weeks.
Theory into practice
To the best of my knowledge, the last finding hasn’t been verified in other studies yet. It sounds very promising, but I would like to see more evidence. Do negative evaluations of obstacles indeed lead to staying more committed over time? Do other factors play a role in the long-term? Hopefully, new studies will answer these questions soon. Nevertheless, mental contrasting is likely to make your mind clearer thanks to the negative, automatic evaluation of obstacles. But keep in mind that fantasizing about your future success is not enough. You also need to bring yourself down to earth, face reality, and brew your mana potion before you can conquer the world.
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