Bored by your Fitbit? Winnipeg researcher explains how motivations change over time

If you've purchased a fitness tracker in recent years, you may have personally experienced what one University of Winnipeg researcher calls the "attentional switch" from a positive outlook in the beginning to a fear of failure near the end.

What motivates people changes during the pursuit of goals, new research suggests

A Winnipeg researcher says when people embark on a goal, like losing weight, their motivation tends to change over time, from a positive outlook in the beginning to fears over failure toward the end. (BTNHD Production/Flickr)

If you're one of the millions of people who purchased a fitness tracker in recent years, you may have personally experienced what one University of Winnipeg researcher calls the "attentional switch."

New research done by consumer psychology expert Olya Bullard suggests when people embark on a new goal — like losing weight — their attention tends to shift from a more positive outlook in the beginning to fears of failure toward the end.

"Before our study was published, we didn't know this," said Bullard, an assistant professor in business administration at the University of Winnipeg.

Her paper, co-authored with Rajesh V. Manchandab, is titled "How goal progress influences regulatory focus in goal pursuit" and is set to be published in the July issue of Journal of Consumer Psychology.

"Previous research primarily focused on motivational strength and trying to understand how motivational strength changes at various stages of goal pursuit. What we showed is something entirely different," said Bullard.

"Actually, it's not only that our strength of motivation can vary at different stages, but it's also the type of motivation…. That's what's new."

Bullard's research suggests that when people begin to make progress on their goals, whether it's to boost their savings or shed a few pounds, their focus is on the incremental improvements they've made.

She calls the early driver "promotion focus" or a focus on the positives: the gains they made so far and the benefits they're seeing.

About halfway through achieving the goal, though, things change. People begin to shift their focus more on prevention, she said.

"A focus on avoidance of losses, avoidance of negative outcomes, ensuring our responsibilities and duties are met and things like that," said Bullard.

Let's say you buy a fitness tracker with the goal of being able to run a 10-kilometre race by the end of summer. Perhaps in May and June, your focus is on the progress you're making — not gasping for air after the first kilometre or two. By July or early August, you might be more driven by the desire not to collapse at the end of your upcoming race.

Bullard's insights into motivation are based on five experiments conducted with more than 600 participants.

"We gave them a goal to accomplish and we had them doing some stuff towards accomplishing that goal, and then we interrupted them," she said. "They were in either early or later stages of goal pursuits."

Participants were then surveyed to gauge what their motivations were, Bullard said.

The research may help inform marketers on how to reach customers who might be motivated by different things, she said — "based on understanding their consumers and where they are in goal pursuits."

While the findings don't run against conventional wisdom, she said, they may shed light on why positive reinforcement works better on some consumers whereas underlining the negative consequences of inaction works better on others.