Think of the last time you had to do a big, imposing, complicated project. How did you summon the will to even get started? How did you manage to maintain momentum all the way through? Naturally, these are the sorts of questions that have long fascinated psychologists, and a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology offers an interesting insight about how people can remain motivated during the long slog of a difficult task.

Olya Bullard and Rajesh V. Manchanda, both of the University of Winnipeg, ran a series of five experiments to see how different ways of structuring and framing goals would affect the behavior of a bunch of Amazon Mechanical Turk users and undergraduates. In one of the experiments, for example, respondents were asked to solve a bunch of "relatively simple mathematical equations," and were randomly assigned to be given feedback either early or late in the task.

The authors' key findings concerned a switch that seems to occur during the process of completing a goal. Early on, "individuals represent goals as promotion-focused," write Bullard and Manchanda, meaning they focus on what they're positively trying to gain or achieve. But "in later stages of goal pursuit, individuals represent goals as prevention-focused" — If I don't complete this, I'm going to be losing something important. That's likely because early on, people tend to compare their state of progress to the point at which they started, when they hadn't yet accomplished anything. Later, they can envision the completed goal, and begin comparing their current state of progress to the promised land.

Bullard and Manchanda believe these findings could be important to marketers, who could use promotion focuses on consumers who have just started setting out to complete a goal, while using prevention focuses to motivate people who are further along. For example, "personal trainers can integrate prevention-focused strategies in their training plans (e.g., negative reinforcement-based reward system) for individuals who have made substantial goal progress. Likewise, financial planners can emphasize to consumers how securing their financial goals can help them feel safe and secure and fulfill their responsibilities in life."

What all this suggests — and as always, one needs to be careful about over-extrapolating from a lab setting to a real world — is that many people could be misfiring in their attempts to motivate others. If someone seeking to lose 20 pounds has already lost 15, for example, it might be that a line like "Think how much better you already feel about yourself, and how you'll feel even better once you complete your goal" might not work as well as "If you let up now, so close to your goal, you'll feel disappointed in yourself." The first line references the weight-loser's initial state, which according to Bullard and Manchanda will be less relevant to them when they're so far along, while the second line references the possibility of not completing the task.

This is a bit of an oversimplification, of course, since weight loss and other goals rarely come down to one sentence versus another, but this sort of research can help us better understand which sorts of messages people respond to when they are trying to accomplish something tough.

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