Understanding the motivational effect of perceived challenges




Suppose a person came to you doubting your ability to achieve a certain goal: would you be demotivated by the challenge or would you strive harder to prove her wrong? If you were a fully rational agent with no concern for your own ego, then you should react in only one of two ways. If this person is well informed about your true ability, then you should become more pessimistic about your chances of success. Alternatively, if the person knows nothing about your ability, then you should simply ignore her feedback. In either case, your motivation to succeed should not increase and it might possibly drop.

However, evidence from psychology and behavioural economics suggests that people have image concerns: they want to believe in their ability, talent, or skills and they want others to think the same. As a result, they may try harder to prove to others and/or to themselves that they can. It is not difficult to think of examples in which the pride feelings of an individual might push him to go beyond others' (and possibly their own) expectations. Where does this motivational force come from, how is it triggered, and how can we use it to help people perform better? The research programme led by Severine Toussaert aims to shed light on this set of unexplored issues.

In a series of projects conducted in different environments, Dr Toussaert will explore what happens to the motivation of individuals who feel challenged in their ability to complete an ego-relevant task. In two projects, she will conduct an online experiment in which participants will be randomly assigned to different conditions; in some of these conditions, they will receive a message either from a peer (Experiment 1) or from the researcher (Experiment 2) that explicitly questions their ability to succeed in a challenging task. The tasks are : staying off Facebook for 28 consecutive days (Experiment 1) and meeting a goal in a road-running race (Experiment 2). In a final project, Dr Toussaert will aim to investigate whether receiving evidence that challenges one's sense of ego has the same motivational effect when the recipient does not know that the challenge is part of an experiment.

Understanding the motivational effect of perceived threats (vs. boosts) to a person's image is important for the design of behaviour change interventions (e.g., interventions that seek to make people lose weight, exercise more, save for retirement, recycle their waste, etc...). Up until recently, interventions designed to make people change their habits focused almost entirely on the use of monetary incentives, with limited long-term effects. While a burgeoning literature has started to investigate the importance of image concerns as a source of motivation, little is known so far about the ways in which this motivational force could be leveraged to design powerful behaviour change interventions. This research will offer a first evaluation of the potential of perceived challenges to trigger behaviour change.
But even if the behavioural impact of challenges is indeed positive on average, it is likely that some people will be hurt by ego-threatening information and become particularly discouraged. Dr Toussaert will therefore study how different categories of people react to perceived challenges and assess the emotional impact of those challenges. Finally, she will develop a theoretical framework that will articulate the mechanisms that could drive motivation in these types of situations.


The research project is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council