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. 

The study authors believe that when high achievers are primed to achieve excellence, the idea that a task is “fun” undercuts their desire to excel.  If something is enjoyable and fun, how could it possibly be a credible gauge of achievement?

Conversely, low achievers who are similarly primed with achievement words perceive a “fun” task as worthwhile. Not only is their motivation to perform improved, so is their ability.

This intriguing twist says much about why one-size-fits-all educational strategies so often fail.  For students motivated to achieve excellence, making tasks entertaining may actually undermine their performance. Likewise, for those not normally motivated to achieve, describing a task as urgent and serious yields the predictable result. 

It also sheds light on the “lazy genius” phenomenon. Everyone has known someone who is remarkably intelligent but gets mediocre grades and doesn’t seem to care.  Clearly, low-achievers are not necessarily less intelligent or less capable than high-achievers; instead, they just don’t respond well to status quo motivational cues.  A jolt of enjoyment could turn that around.
This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org
Hart W, & Albarracín D (2009). The effects of chronic achievement motivation and achievement primes on the activation of achievement and fun goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97 (6), 1129-41 PMID: 19968423


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10 responses to “What Zaps a High Achiever’s Performance Lights a Low Achiever’s Fire

  1. Pingback: Simoleon Sense » Blog Archive » The Motivating Difference Between High & Low Achievers

  2. Jeff

    Interesting. This sort of fits my experience.

    I’ve always managed to “compete” successfully with high achievers by either finding a “fun” angle to something or fooling myself into thinking there was a “fun” aspect to the dreary or hated tasks they thrive on. Generally works pretty well (over 30 years so far).

    The only problem is that for the truly dreary stuff you can only lie to yourself for so long before you stop being able to fool yourself. Probably why I’ve still had a very varied career.

    On the other hand I’ve also had success precisely because I insist on “fun” in what I do personally or professionally – life is simply too short to do otherwise.

    Part of “fun” is operating “outside the box” much of the time which also tends to over-extend and confound many, if not most, “high achievers”.

    From my experience, they tend to play the game of life more simply with sometimes overly simplistic rules and get into quite a dither when the rules don’t play out exactly the way they want or expect or were taught.

    I tend to thrive on those situations – they are interesting in permutative and entropically fun way, just as a certain amount of game complexity can be key to game “fun-ness”.

  3. Katkinkate

    Making a game out of some of my more boring admin jobs is the only way I’ve managed to stay employed. When they stop being ‘fun’ no matter what I do it’s time to leave, before I have a boredom-enduced mental breakdown or do some real damage through negligence of my job.

  4. Pingback: Zapping High Achiever’s - Ryan Sager - Neuroworld - True/Slant

  5. Pingback: High acheivers not so high in learning games |

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  7. Love this! In Restitution/control theory we talk about the 5 basic needs: 1) the survival needs 2) fun 3) freedom 4) belonging/love, and 5) power/competence. We need all 5, but often value one or two over the others.

    In my workplace, I have colleagues who value fun over competence (don’t get me wrong, they are excellent at their jobs), while I fit fun in where I can and tend to be more competitive & type A. We teach teens & have remarked on the different kids we each seem to appeal to, or are best at motivating. This may shed some light on it.

    GREAT site, btw!

  8. Angela

    I’m a high achievers type but sometimes its good to have some ‘fun’ once for a while as long as it does not affect my job-the real tasks ahead.

  9. Pingback: Task Perception (Serious vs. Fun) and Performance – Lone Gunman

  10. Pingback: Teaching College Math » Blog Archive » Random But Organized Thoughts (7-25-2010)

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