Eyes on the Prize: Understanding the Links Between Perception and Motivation

This is part of our “Ask a Behavioral Scientist” series, where we give readers the opportunity to pose a question to leading behavioral scientists. Have a question? Ask it here.

Q: Some of your research has examined and identified links between blood pressure, goal motivation, and visual perception—specifically in the realm of exercise. Could what you've discovered extend to encouraging goal motivation and attainment in other realms? If so, how would that look for regular people? What about for behavioral scientists designing goal setting/attainment interventions?

When we tell ourselves we can’t do something, it might just be that we are seeing something as more challenging than it really is. When we say that what we’re up against is the impossible, it might not appear that way to someone else—and it doesn’t have to look that way to us. Our eyes are incredible tools for shaping our experience. With them, we can quite literally see a new way forward.

I have conducted a series of experiments where we tested a strategy that motivates people to do something that might otherwise look insurmountable. We taught people trying to exercise better to look at the distance to a finish line using a technique we called keeping their “eyes on the prize.” They focused their gaze at the finish line and avoided looking around at anything else. Then we compared the effectiveness of this strategy with our baseline group, who looked around as they naturally would. Both groups practiced their visual strategy, then took off on a foot race.

My team and I found that people who kept their “eyes on the prize” said the exercise required 17 percent less exertion than the baseline group. It hurt less. And they walked 23 percent faster. Simply changing how people looked around when walking improved the quality of their exercise and made the goal seem easier to attain.

Goals set at levels that are moderately challenging but not impossible are the ones that inspire and that our bodies mobilize and gear up to take on.

Beyond just exercise, strategies that shape our perceptions of what separates us from meeting a goal can encourage us to do things we might find quite challenging. And the effects are real. Rex Wright, a psychologist at the University of North Texas, measures changes in systolic blood pressure as people take on all kinds of challenges. Although our doctors might encourage some of us to try to lower our blood pressure overall, it does fluctuate naturally, and it should. Systolic blood pressure in particular rises when our bodies are mobilizing to take on some physical or mental activity that requires cognitive or physical investment. It’s our bodies’ way of preparing to do something. What Wright finds is that systolic blood pressure stays pretty low when what we are about to do is relatively easy. We don’t need to gear up to do a task that doesn’t require all that much of us. But he also finds that systolic blood pressure stays low when we are about to do something that we have decided for ourselves feels impossible. Our bodies behave as if we’ve given up before we’ve ever started. Interestingly though, Wright finds that systolic blood pressure rises most dramatically when we’re about to take on something that we believe is moderately challenging but not unmanageable.

What does this mean? The best-laid goals are the ones that are set at just the right level. They can’t be too hard, or people give up before they’ve even really started. Set a goal that’s too easy to achieve, and we sit back on our laurels, unmotivated to move forward. Goals set at levels that are moderately challenging but not impossible are the ones that inspire and that our bodies mobilize and gear up to take on.

From my own work, I believe that we can teach ourselves to see what stands between us and our goals differently. We can train ourselves to focus on our goal. That goal could be running faster down a track, saving more money for a distant retirement, or sustaining a long workday week after week, seeking a promotion. When we use a strategy that keeps us focused on the goal, a goal that might otherwise seem far off, remote, and impossible might now seem nearer and easier to achieve.