From the gym to the office, sticking to your plan may require thinking about the experience when planning.
Plenty of well-intentioned exercisers select programs designed to whip themselves into shape, only to abandon those workout routines because they are boring.
A new study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, finds people value having a positive experience when they are in the middle of an activity, although this matters less to them before or after they start the activity. For example, people value that their work is engaging more when in the middle of a current job then when thinking about future work.
These findings are reported in “The Experience Matters More Than You Think: People Value Intrinsic Incentives More Inside Than Outside an Activity,” by Chicago Booth Professor Ayelet Fishbach and Booth PhD student Kaitlin Woolley. Because when people look forward to or back on an activity, they tend to underestimate how important it is to actually enjoy doing it, people also underestimate in advance how much the presence or absence of a positive experience will influence their persistence on a task. And further, people may come to regret selecting activities that provide a less enjoyable experience when they are engaging in those activities.
The researchers conducted six experiments—including exercising, visiting a museum and lab tasks—designed to explore the motivational effects of two types of incentives: those linked to the outcome of finishing a task (such as improved health from working out), and those linked to the experience itself (such as having a fun or relaxing workout). The studies found that when people were asked to evaluate what’s important to them in the middle of an activity, they valued the experience more than when they were asked about it outside of the activity. For example, those working out at the gym valued having an enjoyable workout more than those who were surveyed before working out. However, people valued the outcome of the workout (e.g., improved health) similarly inside and outside the activity.
“What people value when choosing might be different from what they value later on when pursuing these actions,” said Fishbach. “And if what people care about changes, they may choose activities that they fail to follow through on or that they regret pursuing.”
In one experiment, researchers tested whether people could accurately predict how persistence would be affected by boring or fun tasks and lower or higher pay. Participants were assigned to evaluate sections of a computer manual or a joke book and told they would receive a bonus of either five or 10 cents for each completed section. One group of participants predicted how long they would stick with their tasks and expected that higher pay would be the main driver. Ultimately, the researchers didn’t have this group perform any tasks, but another group of participants did. The only factor that increased this group’s time spent on a reading task was the level of enjoyment during the activity—the amount of money did not influence persistence.
The research has implications for employers, policymakers, and others who wish to motivate people. Dieters, for example, should realize that taste might not matter to them before initiating a diet. But to actually stick with it, they should choose an eating experience that isn’t just low-calorie, but also fulfilling and enjoyable, said Fishbach.
Likewise, in the workplace, when an employee is immersed in a project, that is the best time for employers to emphasize the rewarding aspects of the project experience. “Doing so will increase persistence on the task,” said Fishbach.