And You Thought Being Direct and Precise Was Good

A new psychological study upends our understanding of the benefits of direct and precise information as a motivational tool. Results from the study by Himanshu Mishra and Baba Shiv describe the cognitive benefits of vague and inarticulate feedback over precise information. At first glance this seems to be counter-intuitive. After all, fuzzy math, blurred reasoning and unclear directives would seem to be the banes of current societal norms that value data in as a precise a form as possible. We measure, calibrate, verify and re-measure and report information to the nth degree.

[div class=attrib]Stanford Business:[end-div]

Want to lose weight in 2011? You’ve got a better chance of pulling it off if you tell yourself, “I’d like to slim down and maybe lose somewhere between 5 and 15 pounds this year” instead of, “I’d like to lose 12 pounds by July 4.”

In a paper to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, business school Professor Baba Shiv concludes that people are more likely to stay motivated and achieve a goal if it’s sketched out in vague terms than if it’s set in stone as a rigid or precise plan.

“For one to be successful, one needs to be motivated,” says Shiv, the Stanford Graduate School of Business Sanwa Bank, Limited, Professor of Marketing. He is coauthor of the paper “In Praise of Vagueness: Malleability of Vague Information as a Performance Booster” with Himanshu Mishra and Arul Mishra, both of the University of Utah. Presenting information in a vague way — for instance using numerical ranges or qualitative descriptions — “allows you to sample from the information that’s in your favor,” says Shiv, whose research includes studying people’s responses to incentives. “You’re sampling and can pick the part you want,” the part that seems achievable or encourages you to keep your expectations upbeat to stay on track, says Shiv.

By comparison, information presented in a more-precise form doesn’t let you view it in a rosy light and so can be discouraging. For instance, Shiv says, a coach could try to motivate a sprinter by reviewing all her past times, recorded down to the thousandths of a second. That would remind her of her good times but also the poor ones, potentially de-motivating her. Or, the coach could give the athlete less-precise but still-accurate qualitative information. “Good coaches get people not to focus on the times but on a dimension that is malleable,” says Shiv. “They’ll say, “You’re mentally tough.’ You can’t measure that.” The runner can then zero in on her mental strength to help her concentrate on her best past performances, boosting her motivation and ultimately improving her times. “She’s cherry-picking her memories, and that’s okay, because that’s allowing her to get motivated,” says Shiv.

Of course, Shiv isn’t saying there’s no place for precise information. A pilot needs exact data to monitor a plane’s location, direction, and fuel levels, for instance. But information meant to motivate is different, and people seeking motivation need the chance to focus on just the positive. When it comes to motivation, Shiv said, “negative information outweighs positive. If I give you five pieces of negative information and five pieces of positive information, the brain weighs the negative far more than the positive … It’s a survival mechanism. The brain weighs the negative to keep us secure.”

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