The future of motivation?

Envision success and you're likely to remain motivated in trying to achieve whatever goal you've set. Envision failing and you probably will. That's the kind of advice you'd expect to hear from most folks versed in the psychology of motivation.

But it's not what one group of researchers recently concluded.

Fear, the University of Bath study found, may be a stronger motivator to get fit than the hope of looking good.

That's right — according to the study. The very small study found that people who were asked to imagine themselves actually getting fit were less motivated to continue going to the gym, because they no longer had the fear of not looking good. People who were asked to imagine a dramatic failure in keeping to the program kept on training because they feared not looking good.

Now, I'm no expert on motivation, but when I'm bouncing off the wall every hundred metres or so, 35 kilometres into a marathon, repeating "I'm overweight, unattractive and will spend the rest of my life alone" doesn't strike me as a particularly good way to push myself to the finish line.

So I asked Dr. Kate Hays, a Toronto sports psychologist and head of the psyching team at the Toronto Marathon for the past nine years.

Her approach includes goal setting, relaxation training, positive imagery, self-talk, and affirmations.

"In general," she said, "people function much more effectively with positive than negative motivation. I mean, is it really very helpful for me to make sure I tell my spouse to tell me that if I don't exercise I'm going to look utterly slovenly?"

Well hang on. Another study has found that you don't need a human to help motivate you either. Receiving automated calls from a computer may be enough to get you off the couch.

The year-long study found that regular phone calls — either from a real-live health educator or an automated calling device — successfully prodded adults to stick to a 150-minute per week walking program. Didn't matter if the call was from the human or the machine. But those who did not receive any calls were more apt to fall off the program.

The automated calls were pretty sophisticated, even giving advice on how to overcome barriers that might have prevented the person from reaching last week's goal.

I smell a follow-up study here. "Press one if you're worried that your clothes are getting too tight. Press two if you're wondering what you were thinking when you bought that bathing suit. Press three…"