The future of motivation?

Comments (9)
By Peter Hadzipetros

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…"

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Comments (9)



Ask most brides what motivates them to go to the gym and it's probably the fear of having horrible pictures of themselves that last a life time.

I have to agree that in the short-term, fear motivates me. Sometimes I see older people in their 40s, 50s + and think "that's someone I DON'T want to be" which drives me to take steps today, tomorrow and next week to prevent that. It's what motivates me to get to the gym at 6am. On the other hand, I think I'm motivated longer-term by the people that I respect and aspire to be. I try to mimic their good qualities which include pushing yourself and being good to your body. When I'm at the gym running on a treadmill during those gloomy winter months I remind myself that I'm doing this hard work because I want to stay healthy and active throughout my life. It becomes a value like trying to be an honest person.

Keep on moving any way you can!

Posted February 21, 2008 03:44 PM



I don't know, S - if that is your real name. I think that making an argument from a sample size of 1 is called; "an opinion", and falls in a 100% confidence interval.
The study I read was at the least confusing, and in spots (last 2 paragraphs) absolutely ambiguous(as a runner).
I get nervous when statisticians and psychologists try to validate something as esoteric as running. I'm usually too caught up with pace, stride, and breathing to think about means, medians, Id, ego, and super-ego.
There are lots of smokers out there that won't quit regardless of the horrid images they put on cigarette packages, and lots of runners without washboard abs or a gold medal that never miss a chance to run.
But imagining a negative image to succeed? I say - argue for your weaknesses and they will be yours.

Posted December 11, 2007 01:57 PM



I'm a Personal trainer and Fitness Instructor. I've seen a lot of motivating and goal-reaching. Let's face it; most people who work out like the physical changes they get from their efforts. Not that they are egotistical. They like to feel good and they like to look good. Health, for many, may have been their prime motivator to start, but the body they transform becomes their motivation: Use it or Lose it. Yes, that may indeed be fear-based, but it is most likely just "distateful" to them to consider reversing their efforts. Why WOULD anyone want to be weak, sick, jiggly or in chronic pain?

Posted December 9, 2007 09:58 PM



I think it is obvious that the motivating factor will vary between individuals. There is a subset who first have to have the heart attack or Type 2 diabetes before they start exercising - being a better alternative then facing their mortality. There are others who were blessed with a mind and body that considers a good workout as a part of life - much like eating and bathing - and others still for whom vanity is as good as motivator as any. I'm not sure if Michieveli indulged in exercise - or what worked for him - love or fear?

Posted December 9, 2007 04:55 AM



I just want to caution people about the way newspapers and other like media report the results of studies like this.

For instance, the author of this article calls this a "small" study and then attempts to refute the researchers claims by saying "this doesn't work for me".

The researchers looked at a sample of 281 people. From a stats point of view this is a respectable sample size (I teach stats to university students in an Experimental Psychology program - trust me on this one).

The author refutes the researcher's argument by referring to a sample size of 1 (i.e. he says that this is not the case for him). Making an argument based on a sample of 1 person is what we call "bad science".

I'm not saying whether the researchers are right or wrong: I would need to read the actual research article that they published in order to properly evaluate their statistics and claims. I'm just saying that there is more reason to believe the claims of researchers who have conducted a scientifically sound study than the claims of a person speaking anecdotally.

That's all I'll say: I won't even get into why the media does the public a HUGE disservice by only reporting means (i.e. averages) without explaining whether the differences between the presented means are actually statistically or practically significant...


Posted December 8, 2007 06:29 PM



My motivation varies: Sometimes its positive - my computer background pic of me coming across the finish line of a 10K race in less minutes than I am years old; How my father survived a heart attack because of good fitness level; Remembering that guy you saw 100yds ahead of you yesterday on your long slow run that you reeled in and passed. Sometimes its the negative - an extra pound or pants that used to fit better; An empty page in my log(damn runners world swag); Meeting an high school friend who hasn't kept in shape; The other day when some young post-natal gazelle passed you, pushing one of those high-tech strollers.
Either way, motivation only works if you look forward to the effort. If I had to push myself every day, I would eventually find reasons not to run.

Posted December 6, 2007 09:06 AM



I think positive thoughts are better to keep you performing your best, but i understand the negative thing. NOthing got me more focused than the early heart attack death of my father. I don't want to go down the same road and I want to be there for my kids. I want to fight the diabetes history. It's no surprise to me that I lost the weight and kept it off after he died.

Posted December 5, 2007 10:21 AM



I am not suprised by this at all. Like many things in life (job, relationships, etc) the drive to succeed is often rooted in the fear of failure. You don't want to fail in your career, so you work hard to succeed to ward off chances of failure.
I work-out very regularly and am in healthy shape. I wasn't always though. I am very motivated when I get stronger and faster and improve - but a deep part of me never wants to see the "old me" in the mirror again. I fear that failing my health and body - not for vanity purposes as much, would be devastating - and some days that's what motivates me to get moving.

A further note: I see these thoughts being more of an internal mechanism than an external one. If someone were to verbally say to me "not working out will make you fat" I would probably be very hurt.

Posted December 5, 2007 10:20 AM

Deb Johnson

That's odd that they'd find that negative thoughts would inspire you more. I'd personally think that positive thoughts would! But perhaps those scares about diabetes, cancer, and heart attacks do help? But to get myself out the door, walking, I think of good thoughts. I think how much I love sucking the air deep into my lungs, love to hear the birds chirping, and just enjoy being "out" there. There's nothing negative forcing me out the door. Yeah, I see another study or two, or three to challenge this!

Posted December 5, 2007 08:31 AM

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About the Author

Peter HadzipetrosPeter Hadzipetros is a producer for the Consumer and Health sites of CBC News Online. Until he got off the couch and got into long distance running a few years ago, he was a net importer of calories.

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Recent Comments

Ask most brides what motivates them to go to the gym and ...
The future of motivation?
I don't know, S - if that is your real name. I think tha...
The future of motivation?
I'm a Personal trainer and Fitness Instructor. I've seen...
The future of motivation?
I think it is obvious that the motivating factor will var...
The future of motivation?
I just want to caution people about the way newspapers an...
The future of motivation?


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