Monday, 12 October 2015

Our shifting motivations: The inherent pleasure of a task is more important to us once we get started

When anticipating a task, we focus on its tangible benefits, underestimating how much the experience itself matters
You’re going for a run – well, you’re going to, once you get off the sofa. One glance at the crisp autumn sky outside reminds you how nice it is to get a bit of fresh air, but somehow it’s not enough, and you stay glued to your seat. Finally you do rouse yourself to action, but only by picturing your future self: lean and fit from managing to keep to your exercise schedule. Mid-way through the run, you have a chuckle – what a beautiful day, what an exhilarating experience! Of course this run would be worthwhile on its own terms! Later on, you settle back into the sofa and your perspective flips yet again. Why is running so important? For the purpose of getting fit, of course.

This dramatised pattern is the topic of a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which investigates how differently we appreciate the yields of an activity when we’re actually in its midst. Then, we see the intrinsic features of an activity as more important than we do either beforehand or afterwards.

Let’s start with a joke – jokes, in fact, as this paper includes several experiments involving joke reviews. In the first one, 102 participants were told to evaluate jokes of variable quality (for instance, fairly tired Englishman, Irishman, and Scotsman routines) at five cents a joke. Participants had to say how important it was that the jokes were funny, as well considering the level of pay on offer. Half were asked before beginning the task, and half during the task. Those asked during the task placed a greater value on the jokes being funny than those asked before the task, consistent with the idea that our priorities change once we actually begin an experience.

The second experiment with 401 participants involved them evaluating the clarity of computer manual excerpts or jokes. Here, some participants got five cents per item, others 10 cents. In one condition, participants didn’t actually perform the task, instead they were asked to predict how long they would be willing to spend on it (given the rate of pay and the content to be judged): those promised more money estimated they would persist longer and would complete most of the items (the average estimate was 24/30 items) regardless of whether the task was likely to be fun (judging jokes) or dull (computer manuals).

But looking at the behaviour of the participants who actually did the tasks, the researchers found the opposite was true – participants only spent an average of 13 rounds on the dull task, compared with 20 on the fun one, and the amount of cash on offer had no effect on staying power. As the researchers Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago describe it, outside the "pursuit" of an activity, we find the importance of its experiential features harder to grasp.

Additional studies generalised the effect, to gym bunnies who rated workout enjoyability as more important to them when they were at the gym than when surveyed a week later, and science museum visitors who considered intrinsic rewards like "feeling my horizons broadened" more important during their museum visit, compared to when they recalled or anticipated their next visit. Extrinsic benefits – health in the first case, interesting conversation topics in the second – held the same importance whether looked at from inside or outside pursuit.

When we’re experiencing something, we are in a different, "hotter" state than when we are planning or reviewing it. We already know that people underestimate the experiential woosh that a hot state provides, and discount the pain of being bullied and the erotic power of touch alike. As well as leading to unrealistic expectations of how far we can persist in deadening activities, a final experiment showed how this effect influences how we feel about our choices with hindsight. Given the option between two tasks (dull and better paid versus fun and less well paid), most participants chose the dull option, suggesting it seems a more desirable prospect. Yet later on, when other participants were encouraged to choose either the dull or fun options, those nudged to pick the dull, well-compensated task experienced more regret afterwards about their "choice", wishing that they had insisted on taking the fun, worse-paid option.

Choosing the means to a good end may seem wise, but don’t forget that participating in fulfilling activities is a good end in itself – an insight that can seem elusive from a distance, but which becomes self-evident in the moment.


Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2015). The Experience Matters More Than You Think: People Value Intrinsic Incentives More Inside Than Outside an Activity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000035

--further reading--
We're useless at predicting how what happens will affect us emotionally
Want to know how you'll feel? Ask a friend
Researchers say: Don't worry what other people think, going out on your own can be fun

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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