Improvement vs. Performance: Surprising Findings

This academic study reveals enlightening findings about how our framing of a task affects our motivation:

In 2009, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson made a surprising discovery in the science of motivation. She conducted a series of studies where she asked participants to solve a set of puzzles and problems. In one group — the “be-good” group — participants were told that their score reflected their “conceptual and analytical abilities.” They should try to solve as many problems as possible and aim for a high score to demonstrate how good they were. In another group — the “get-better” group — participants were told that each problem was a “training tool” and that they ought to “take advantage of this valuable learning opportunity” to improve their problem-solving skills.

For some participants in each group, Halvorson also increased the difficulty level by introducing a few challenges. She interrupted participants to use up some of their allotted time. She threw in extra, unsolvable problems to frustrate them, without telling participants that the problems were unsolvable.

What surprised Halvorson was how the two groups dealt with the challenges. The ones in the “get-better” group remained unfazed and solved as many as problems in the challenging conditions as the easy ones. They stayed motivated and kept trying to learn. The ones in the “be-good” group, however, were so demoralized when they faced the challenges and obstacles that they solved substantially fewer problems than those who didn’t have to face them.

This advice all may sound intuitive, but it’s easy to forget. A current or former athlete may know that a focus on skill mastery is more important to success than a focus on wins and losses. But that same individual, when confronted with study for the GMAT, might fall into a trap in which every practice question is another chance to perform or not perform and find practice demoralizing.

Keep an eye on winning, but focus on improving your skills.

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