Can Motivation Be A Bad Thing?

If I ever stumble upon a wish-granting genie, my first wish will be to have the motivation necessary to accomplish all of my goals. Motivation is like salt or nice weather — it makes everything better. Well, almost everything. A new study by psychologists from Ghent University in Belgium and the University of Maryland suggests that motivation is not always helpful.

The researchers had subjects read about a stabbing that occurred, but the story was excessively favorable to the accused stabber. Subjects recorded their judgment about the defendant, then read supplementary materials that were less favorable to him, and then recorded their judgment again. The researchers were interested in the degree to which subjects used the new information to change their judgments.

Here’s the catch. Before reading the story half the subjects were told they would have to defend their judgements, and half were told they were running through a pilot study with no consequences. This manipulation instilled either a high or low degree of motivation. In addition, throughout the experiment some participants had to memorize a long string of letters and numbers, and some had to memorize a shorter string. This activity left certain participants with a larger amount of cognitive capacity.

When the researchers looked at the interplay of motivation and cognitive capacity, they found that when cognitive capacity was high, more motivation led to better results (i.e. a greater shift in judgement in response to new information.) However, when cognitive capacity was low, higher motivation led to a worse performance. A follow-up experiment confirmed that the outcomes were dependent on how motivation influenced the ability to identify relevant information.

The results indicate that highly motivated individuals appreciate the information as more relevant and adjust their judgment accordingly when their cognitive capacity is high, whereas they are less able to appreciate the information’s relevance when cognitive capacity is low, hence leading to less adjustment of their judgment.

When cognitive capacity is high, motivation makes us better at identifying relevant information. However, when cognitive capacity is low, motivation actually makes us worse at identifying relevant information.

Perhaps it’s because I wrote about it last week, but one high-motivation, low-cognitive-capacity environment that comes to mind is the 24-hour, official spokesman back-and-forth that continues to eat away at our political discourse. Let’s say Harry Reid has an original proposal. The Republican senate leadership has to respond, but instead of being able to take their time they need something in a matter of hours. The time crunch, which prevents soliciting advice and opinions from certain people, severely limits the “cognitive capacity” of those crafting the response. Because it’s their job and their ideological goal to “win,” motivation will be high. Thus the mismatch between motivation and cognitive capacity leads to a poor response that doesn’t fully grasp the relevance of Reid’s proposal.

Obviously the purpose of a rapid fire PR response is to score points and control the news cycle, not engage in a nuanced policy debate. But even within that frame, the implication of the study is that at the margin, the shortening news cycle will cause official statements to be less insightful in how they deal with an original event.

via « peer-reviewed by my neurons.

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