A Recipe for Motivation

Friday, October 10, 2008

By Wray Herbert

One of the most famous American cartoonists of the 20th century was Rube Goldberg, who was widely known for his “Goldberg Machines.” Each of these comical inventions depicted a complex set of “instructions” for completing what should have been a fairly simple everyday task. His Self-Operating Napkin, for example, required a dozen sequential steps involving a parrot, a cigar lighter, a rocket and a sickle, and of course various strings and springs and pendulums.

The cartoons were funny because they poked fun at some fundamental facts of human psychology. People will go to great lengths to avoid effortful tasks; it’s human nature. Just think about sticking to that new exercise regimen or taking a course in statistics. Yet it also doesn’t help to over-explain tasks, to make them more complicated than they need to be. Indeed the opposite may be true: Rube Goldberg’s convoluted “how-to” instructions may make us laugh, but they also leave us feeling exhausted. If that’s what it takes to use a napkin, why bother?

Psychologists are very interested in the complex interplay of effort, motivation and cognitive crunching--the ease with which we think about a task in our minds. Is it possible that the simplicity (or complexity) of how a task is described and processed—its fluid or difficult “feel”—actually affects our attitude toward the task itself, and ultimately our willingness to put our heads down and work?

Two University of Michigan psychologists decided to investigate this idea in their lab. Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz wanted to see if they could motivate a group of 20-year-old college students to exercise regularly—not an easy task. They gave all the students written instructions for a regular exercise routine, but they used a simple but ingenious method to make the how-to instructions either cognitively palatable or challenging: Some got instructions printed in Arial typeface, a plain font designed for easy reading. Others got their instructions printed in a Brush font, which basically looks like it’s been written by hand with a Japanese paintbrush; it’s unfamiliar and much harder to read.

There are a lot of ways to make something mentally palatable, or not. You can used clear and simple language, or arcane vocabulary words; simple sentences or convoluted sentences with lots of clauses. The psychologists chose typeface because it’s easy to manipulate in the lab. After the students had all read the instructions, they asked them some questions about the exercise regimen: how long they thought it would take, whether it would flow naturally or drag on endlessly, whether it would be boring, and so forth. They also queried them on whether they were likely to make exercise a routine part of their day.

The findings were remarkable. Those who had read the exercise instructions in an unadorned, accessible typeface were much more open to the prospect of exercising: They believed that the regimen would take less time and that it would feel more “fluid” and easy. Most important, they were more willing to make exercise part of their day. Apparently, the students’ brains mistook the ease of reading about exercise for ease of actually doing the pushups and crunches, and this misunderstanding motivated them to actually think about a life change. Those who struggled through the Japanese brushstrokes had no intention of heading to the gym; the reading alone tired them out.

Song and Schwarz decided to double-check these results with another experiment, this one involving a completely unrelated activity: cooking. Again they used easy- and hard-to-read typefaces, but in this case the instructions were a recipe for making a Japanese sushi roll. After they had read the recipe, the volunteers estimated how long it would take them to make the dish, and whether they were inclined to do it. They were also asked how much skill a professional cook would need to prepare the sushi roll.

The results were basically the same as before. As reported in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who read the cooking instructions in the mentally challenging script saw the task as time-consuming and requiring a high level of culinary skill; they weren’t apt to try it themselves. They in effect used the alien writing as a proxy for the actual task, and as a result ended up avoiding it. Those with the more digestible instructions were much likely to sharpen their knives and head for the kitchen.

Our brains employ all sorts of tricks and shortcuts to get us through the day, but it’s good to be wary of these automatic judgments. If unchecked, our tendency to confuse thoughts and actions can make dubious choices seem easier and more desirable than they ought to be, or they can discourage us from healthy habits and creative exploration. After all, most of the time using a “self-operating” napkin is just as simple as it appears to be.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, please visit the "We're Only Human" weblog or listen to podcasts at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections also appear in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at www.sciam.com.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:18 PM


At 10:35 PM , Blogger M said...

This article was really informative and helps me understand why we do things, thank you.

At 2:31 PM , Blogger Márcio Simões said...

A word of caution: a hard-to-read typeface makes the message more dificult to understand. Perhaps the students didn't mistake the typeface for the task; perhaps they didn't understand the message.

At 3:57 PM , Blogger michaelstus said...

In my business, incentive compensation systems, and in the computer systems world in general, we're always encouraging clients to simplify. Thanks for pointing out some additional scientific backing. I referenced the Scientific American version of this article in one of my own here: http://www.canidiumblog.com/2009/03/this-seems-complicated/


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