Stephen King’s novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times before it finally got published — and launched a legendary literary career. Thomas Edison failed thousands of time before he finally perfected the light bulb.
Most of us aren’t aiming to create a revolutionary invention or get a novel published. But we all have professional goals, and will face at least some degree of failure or hardship in achieving them. In some cases, we have no choice but to keep trying. Giving up on a complex project you’ve been assigned at work could cost you your job. But in other cases, we have the freedom of inertia — we can shun a diet, or put off a search for a more fulfilling job — even if that inaction isn’t in our best interest.
Consumer behavior researchers Rom Y. Schrift (Wharton Business School) and Jeffrey R. Parker (Georgia State University) distinguish these circumstances as rejectable choice sets, where we can defer or simply avoid taking action, and forced choices, where inaction is not a viable option.
One might deduce that people would be less motivated to achieve a goal or solve a problem if they have the option of doing nothing. But in a newly published study, Schrift and Parker found the exact opposite; when we have the option to quit or dally, we try harder.
To test their hypothesis, Schrift and Parker recruited people online to work on a word-search puzzle, telling the participants they could win a bonus based on their performance on the task. The puzzle consisted of a matrix of letters, in which players were to find as many words related to a specific topic as they could. Each participant was assigned to one of three conditions: in a forced-choice condition, they were given a choice of finding the names of either famous actors or capital cities. In the rejectable-choice condition, participants were given the option of not participating. And in a separate forced-choice condition, participants were allowed to choose between finding names of actors, cities, or—as a knottier choice—famous ballet dancers. In the second condition, no one opted out of the task, and in the third condition, no one chose the ballet dancers puzzle.
There were no major differences in the amount of effort participants put forth in the two forced-choice conditions. But participants in the rejectable-choice condition actually persisted longer on the task than did those in the other two conditions.
Schrift and Parker conducted two more task-performance experiments to test their hypothesis, employing some variations on the options available. In one experiment, for example, participants in one condition could opt out of the exercise altogether before seeing the task selections. Another experiment included a condition in which participants were given only one choice of tasks to complete.
In each experiment, participants assigned to rejectable-choice conditions persisted and performed better than those in forced-choice conditions, the researchers report in the journal Psychological Science.
The results suggest, they say, that people on the verge of quitting in the face of a challenge or hardship “may be more easily persuaded to stay the course if the persuasion message includes a reminder that they chose a particular path over doing nothing.”
That’s a useful consideration for managers trying to motivate employees during challenging times. And it doesn’t hurt to consider all your options when trying to motivate yourself.