Consciously we can plan, prepare and use a whole host of goal setting techniques but according to some new research it seems that our unconscious minds play an important part in this too. The research (Huang et al 2012) explored whether people’s mental representation of their progress in the task helps to motivate them into continued effort in the pursuit of completing the task. What they discovered was that when individuals have just started pursuing a goal and have made only limited progress, they exaggerate the achieved progress level in their mental representation to signal a higher chance of eventual goal attainment and thus elicit greater effort. In contrast, when people have made substantial progress and are approaching the goal attainment, they downplay the achieved progress in their mental representation to create greater perceived discrepancy, hence eliciting greater effort in finishing the task.
The researchers tested their findings in other situations and found similar results.
In both situations the mind is warping what they were seeing to give them extra motivation. Although strictly speaking the minds estimation is less accurate than reality, it’s all in the service of achieving something more important: reaching that vital goal.
This is one great example of the way our cognitive biases can be extremely handy for us. This finding is fascinating because it’s demonstrating how sometimes getting precise information about our progress can actually reduce motivation. For example if you’re on the running machine at the gym and you’ve just started your workout, then the fact that the display tells you exactly how far you’ve got to go leaves no room for these helpful unconscious biases to operate.
Sometimes it really is better not to know. Instead let your unconscious give you a helping hand on towards your goal.