Want to lose weight? Then make sure you’re thinking about more than just the numbers on the scale when choosing your workout. Research suggests that when people look forward to or back on an activity, they tend to underestimate how important it is to actually enjoy doing it. The finding may help explain why people often fail to persevere through tedious or unpleasant tasks.
The insight comes from Kaitlin Woolley, a PhD candidate at Chicago Booth, and Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach, who studied how people value incentives that are intrinsic to the experience of an activity (for example, stress relief during a workout) as opposed to the extrinsic rewards that we expect the activity to produce later—weight loss and better health, in the case of working out. They find that the importance of intrinsic incentives grows once people actually find themselves in the midst of a given activity.
This propensity may have significant consequences for goal setting. By underestimating how much we’ll care about the quality of an experience, we “overestimate how much [we] can stick to something that is boring or challenging,” Fishbach points out.
The researchers conducted six studies to track intrinsic and extrinsic motivators before, during, and after various activities. The studies included surveying gym goers and visitors to a museum, as well as asking study subjects to read or listen to materials designed to be either high or low in intrinsic satisfaction. Intrinsic incentives proved to be more important to subjects “inside pursuit” of a task than those “outside pursuit.” What’s more, the presence of intrinsic incentives was a key driver of persistence on a task, and the absence of them was a key driver of regret among subjects who chose one task over another.
The latter finding “suggests people deciding to forgo intrinsic incentives in exchange for extrinsic incentives may be choosing something they will later regret,” the authors write.
There are career lessons to draw from the research. For example, you may be more likely to stick to a job that you find fulfilling rather than one chosen purely on salary. The researchers point out that their findings also have implications for how managers can boost employee engagement. When their teams are in the midst of a task, “employers should focus employees on aspects of the activity that are internally rewarding, because doing so will increase persistence on the task as well as [improve] the overall experience on the job,” they write. For employees who aren’t currently engaged in the task, however, emphasizing extrinsic incentives may provide more motivation to initiate it.