Ayelet Fishbach on Goals and Motivation


“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” the poet Robert Browning once opined, “or what’s a heaven for?” That’s not a very satisfying maxim for someone trying to lose weight, learn a language, or improve themselves in general on this earthly plane. But there are ways to maximize one’s grasping ability, and that’s an area where psychologist Ayelet Fishbach can help.

Fishbach, the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, studies goals and motivations. It’s work that saw her serve as president of the Society for the Science of Motivation and the International Social Cognition Network and to pen the 2022 book, Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation.

In this Social Science Bites podcast, she tells interviewer David Edmonds that one tip for setting goals is to make them concrete. So, for example, resolving to ‘being a good husband’ works, but ‘being happy’ does not. ‘Being happy’ is just too abstract. “You need to get to the level of abstractness that is motivating … but not too abstract that it is no longer connected to an action,” Fishbach explains, adding that there must be “a clear connection between the goal and the means.”

However, she continues, research suggests that people — while focused on the ends — tend to scrimp on the means. Fishbach notes research on MBA students found they were willing to pay $23 for a particular book – but only willing to pay $11 for a tote bag that they knew also contained the book. The value of the bag, which was negligible but still extra step to getting the book, was therefore negative. “Which makes no sense,” she acknowledges, “but it illustrates the point.”

Goals, she says, should be things we can “do,” what we can achieve, as opposed to prohibitions on actions, those “do nots” that describe what we should avoid. “Do” prompts, she continues, “are more intrinsically motivating. You are more excited about them. It feels good and right.” Plus, focusing on what we’re avoiding puts that thing in front of mind – which makes it harder to ignore.

Fishbach calls for measuring your “do” activities, setting targets. She cites a study that saw marathon running times in the United States were not being evenly distributed, but clumped around just-before milestone times like three-and-a-half or four hours, suggesting runners pushed themselves to hit their personal targets.

And where there are targets, there can be rewards. “Rewards work better than punishments,” she says, “but they don’t always work in the way they were intended to work.” If we incentivize the wrong things, behavior bends toward the incentive rather than the underlying goal.

Oddly enough, “uncertain incentives seem to work better than known ones.” Fishbach was part of a research team that saw people would work harder for a $1 or $2 prize, with the amount determined by a coin flip, than they were for a $2 guaranteed prize. “The excitement of resolving uncertainty is always better than the reward you are getting.”

Other topics Fishbach addresses in this episode include internal motivations (immediate returns trumped longer-term rewards), how to sustain motivation, and whether we truly learn more from failure than success.

To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click HERE and save.

Join the debate and discuss this episode with fellow listeners on our Multytude conversation. Multytude is a new social media app that aims to make sense of the online conversation. With support from the SAGE Concept Grant, the Multytude team is working to create a new method of qualitative research for social scientists to better understand what people are saying about the big issues of today.

For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100.

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Social Science Bites

Welcome to the blog for the Social Science Bites podcast: a series of interviews with leading social scientists. Each episode explores an aspect of our social world. You can access all audio and the transcripts from each interview here. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @socialscibites.

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