New Psychological Research Shows How To Trade Weak Motivation For Strong Motivation

Psychologist Marina Milyavskaya says that your motivation determines how difficult your obstacles will be.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 23, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that your inner desire to achieve a goal is the ultimate determinant of the obstacles you face in its pursuit.

I recently spoke to psychologist Marina Milyavskaya to understand why our perception of obstacles changes with the nature of our motivation. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to study the experience of obstacles during goal pursuit?

When pursuing their goals and trying to change behavior, most people have great intentions. But often those intentions don't translate into action.

I am interested in understanding why that's the case – what stands in the way of our best intentions, and how can we overcome that?

Some obstacles are more obvious than others. Could you describe for us what constitutes an 'obstacle' within the context of your study?

In my study obstacles were temptations that could stand in the way of attaining your goals: junk food when your goal is to eat healthy, cell phones and other distractors when your goal is to study (or work).

Could you explain how subjective perception functions when it comes to experiencing obstacles?

Past research has shown that our perception is influenced by a myriad of different internal factors, including our motivations.

For example, in one study participants perceived a glass of water as bigger when they were thirsty (compared to participants who were not thirsty).

When it comes to obstacles, people may perceive them as more or less problematic depending on the strength of their desires for the temptation (if you know you really like cookies, you may recognize that walking into a bakery is problematic), but, as we found out in our study, also in part based on their motivation for their goal and their trait levels of self-control.

What was the methodology of your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

We actually ran seven different studies with different methodologies.

Four of the studies used scenarios where participants chose where they wanted to place obstacles in relation to themselves (e.g., do you choose the chair closest to the pizza in the boardroom, or farther away from it?).

We also had two studies where we attempted to create a realistic situation in the lab (participants had to fill a bookshelf with food in the same way as they would set up a pantry at home, and had to set up an office in a way that would make it easier to work).

And one study was a field study: we approached students studying in the library to see what they were doing (we took pictures of their workspace to code how distracting it was, and also asked them about many distractions they experienced in the last 20 minutes).

In all the studies, we assessed motivation and trait self-control, and linked that to the extent to which people set up or selected obstacles in their environment.

Although there were some differences in findings across studies, when we combined all the results from all the studies, we find that both trait self-control and want-to motivation (the extent to which the goal is pursuit out of feelings of personal importance and interest, and ties to one's identity) were related to positioning obstacles farther from the self; the opposite was found for have-to motivation (doing something because you feel like you have to, or would feel guilty if you did not do it).

Would you say experiencing less obstacles is also a matter of personality?

We looked at trait self-control, which is a measure of personality that assesses how good people typically are at self-control.

Interestingly, what research seems to show is that trait self-control is not about the ability to exert control in the moment, or how much willpower you have.

Instead, people with high self-control are those who experience fewer obstacles and temptations.

Our study found something similar – those high with self-control preferred to position (tempting) obstacles farther from themselves, where presumably they would be less tempted and where they would need to exert less self-control.

Could you distinguish 'have-to' and 'want-to' types of goal motivation and how the two featured in the results of your study?

Want-to motivation represents our internal motivation – doing something because it's personally important to us, it's interesting, or it fits well with our values.

Have-to motivation, on the other hand, involves behaviors that we feel like we should be doing, either because someone else requires or expects it of us, or because we would feel guilty if we didn't do those behaviors.

In our study, we found that want-to motivation was consistently related to setting up obstacles farther from away.

The results for have-to motivation were particularly interesting: participants with high have-to motivation both positioned obstacles closer to themselves and realized that these proximal obstacles were more of a problem.

Such recognition that certain obstacles are potentially problematic, without any steps to get rid of these obstacles, may represent a conflict inherent in feelings of have-to motivation – you may feel pressured to pursue the goal, but still want to indulge in the temptations.

How does one strengthen their sense of motivation (or trait self-control) in the case of an undesirable but unavoidable task, like making a dreaded project report or math homework, that is primarily fueled by have-to motivation?

In most of my research (and the research of many others), it’s not about the quantity of motivation, but the quality. So the question then becomes not how does one strengthen motivation, but how to make sure that we have the right type of motivation.

In the case of an undesirable task, there may be two paths that can work:

  1. The first is to think about how the task fits into your values and identity — reframe it as something that is more of a want-to. Maybe I value being a conscientious worker, and so completing the report fits in with this value. Or I want to eventually become a veterinarian, so doing my math homework is important to accomplish that broader goal.
  2. The second strategy is to make it more enjoyable in the moment — can you pair it with something else that is fun or enjoyable, such as listening to music, or having a tasty treat?

For self-control there is some research that suggests that practice works — doing a little bit of it on a daily basis makes you better at it (or at least more confident in your abilities to do it). See this paper for more details.

Does your study have any practical takeaways for anyone who struggles with motivation and experiences too many obstacles?

For me the practical takeaway is to question the why of your goals. If you find you are pursuing a goal for have-to reasons, then you are more likely to struggle with that goal.

Perhaps it's worth replacing that goal with a goal that is more personally meaningful or important? Or can you find more want-to reasons for that same goal instead?

For example, if your doctor tells you that you need to do more exercise, you can focus on some of the benefits of being in better shape that are inherently meaningful to you such as having more energy to play with your children or grandchildren.

How do you hope your research contributes to intervention efforts?

To be effective, interventions teaching people to reduce obstacles in their environment could be directly targeted at those who are pursuing have-to goals.