Monthly Archives: January 2010

What Zaps a High Achiever’s Performance Lights a Low Achiever’s Fire

High achievers do many things well, particularly when they’re convinced that excellence requires their utmost performance.  Low achievers, however, have a hard time getting motivated and often find themselves coughing in the dust of the high achievers’ hustle.

But like so many generalizations, this one has a limit.   

A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology uncovered a variable that knocks this scenario on its head, and it has everything to do with what makes low achievers tick.

Researchers conducted multiple studies to evaluate how participants’ attitudes toward achievement influenced their performance.  In one study, participants were “primed” with high-achievement words (related to winning, excellence, etc.) flashed on a computer screen. Each word appeared only for an instant, too fast for conscious deliberation. Participants with high-achievement motivation performed significantly better on tasks after being primed with the words than those with low-achievement motivation. 

In another study, participants completing a verbal proficiency task (word-search puzzles) were interrupted, and then given a choice to either resume the task or switch to a task they perceived as more enjoyable. Those with high-achievement motivation were significantly more likely to return to the verbal task than the low achievers.

The results of those studies are predictable and buttress what we generally know about high and low achievers.  But the final study was different.  Participants were primed with high-achievement words (e.g. excel, compete, win) and then asked to complete a word-search puzzle.  But instead of describing the task as a serious test of verbal proficiency, the researchers called it “fun.” 

The results: participants with high-achievement motivation did significantly worse on the task than low achievers. 

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Does Making a Public Commitment Really Help People Lose Weight?

Several of the most popular weight loss programs operate on the public commitment principle. Individuals are challenged to state “publicly” (which may simply mean in front of a small weight loss group) that they want to lose so much weight in a given time period. The commitment hinges on social pressure working against the possibility of failure.  If someone doesn’t succeed, or at least make substantial progress toward the goal, everyone will know it. 

On the face of it, this principle seems sound, since no one wants to be publicly embarrassed or viewed as a hypocrite. In practice, however, there’s a hitch. For the public commitment principle to operate at full steam, its adherents must genuinely fear the disapproval of others—and that’s simply not true of everyone.

A recent study in the journal Psychology and Marketing investigated how public commitment affects individuals who fear social disapproval—that is, people with high susceptibility to normative influence (SNI)—versus individuals who are not as easily influenced by others’ opinions (low SNI).  It also tested the efficacy of short-term versus long-term public commitment, as well as no public commitment.

Two-hundred and eleven women between the ages 20 and 45 were recruited for the study.  They signed up for a 16-week weight loss program designed to help people lose 15 to 20 pounds and maintain weight loss over time.  All subjects completed questionnaires that gauged SNI level and personal weight-loss motivation.  Subjects were then randomly separated into three groups: long-term public commitment, short-term public commitment, and no public commitment.

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