Does the feeling of excitement help performance – or indeed, does it motivate you to get what you want?
I was fortunate to have an enlightening discussion with Dr Jacquie Garton-Smith (Twitter: @JacquieGS) recently on this intriguing topic, one that has close ties to consumer behaviour – and have been challenged to write a little about it.
Dr Garton-Smith’s article primarily concerned how writers can overcome performance anxiety and start writing, and contains a fascinating insight into how she herself utilised research in the area to improve her creative output. Being the market researcher, I couldn’t help but wonder how ‘excitement as motivation’ fits into a consumer framework. But let’s look at the research behind the topic first.
A new coping strategy – re-framing performance anxiety as excitement
Dr Garton-Smith’s article referred to a study by Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks. Brooks observed that, often when people’s performance is impaired by anxiety, they were commonly advised to reduce anxiety, such as ‘calm down’, ‘it’s OK’, or other forms of relaxation strategies. Brooks postulated an alternative, and perhaps contradictory, strategy: re-frame ‘anxiety’ as ‘excitement’. And it seems to work.
The study found that:
‘Compared with those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better.’
Furthermore, Brooks found that the desired effect was evident even after relatively simple strategies, such as positive self-talk (just muttering ‘I’m excited!’), demonstrating the ‘profound control and influence we have over our own emotions.’
Do you play to win or to avoid losing? – Another way to frame the same scenario
The crux of my discussion with Dr Garton-Smith centred upon another theoretical perspective to which Brooks’ study could apply: regulatory focus theory. Centrally, the theory suggests that individuals are motivated to attain goals either by viewing it as achieving a positive result (‘promotion focus’), or as avoiding a negative result (‘prevention focus’) – or simply put, whether you strive for accomplishments (promotion), or safety (prevention).
E. Tory Higgins, who formulated the theory in 1997, contends that individuals tend to act according to one motivation or the other (or what is termed chronic goal orientation), which can be revealed with psychological tests. Individuals prefer (and thrive under) strategies that fit better with their chronic orientation; for instance, a promotion-oriented person would seek to achieve (‘eager’ strategy), whereas a prevention-oriented person would seek to play safe (‘vigilant’ strategy) (Crowe & Higgins, 1997).
Brooks acknowledged the possible role of regulatory focus in her findings, but did not explicitly examine its implications. I can see interesting further developments from the findings…
So…does ‘playing to win’ get you pumped for performance?
According to regulatory focus theory, if you are chronically promotion-focussed, strategies that centre on ‘play to win’ would be a good fit for you. But on the other hand, if you are chronically prevention-focussed, then such strategies would prove to be a poor fit, and your performance may suffer.
An ‘excitement’ strategy, being aspirational in nature, seems to be of the ‘’play to win’ variety, which is supposed to help promotion-oriented individuals. If regulatory focus theory holds true, this strategy should not help individuals with chronic prevention-orientation. But if the counter-result occurs, that ‘excitement’ does help individuals who ‘play for safety’, then perhaps another psychological factor is underlying the relationship between ‘excitement’ and the individual’s chronic orientation. Now that gives impetus for further research.
Also, Higgins did not mean to say that if you ‘chronically’ play to win, you will always play to win. It is an ‘orientation’, or a tendency, which can be temporarily induced (or reduced) by situational factors (Freitas & Higgins, 2002). Several methods are available to (temporarily) manipulate your regulatory focus orientation. Given the right conditions – such as being reminded of aspirational goals – it seems even prevention-focussed individuals can benefit from a ‘get-excited!’ strategy.
In my research days, I regularly came across regulatory focus theory, which has significant implications towards consumer behaviour research, especially in message-framing and persuasion (Aaker & Lee, 2001). It’s nice to see an interesting piece of research on individual performance which pertains to a familiar field. Of course, ‘excitement’ isn’t just a motivation for creatives; advertising makes use of the concept often enough. But when does it work, and to whom? – extending Brooks’ study to consumer goal-orientation may help answer that question.
Aaker, J. L. & Lee, A. Y. (2001). “I” Seek Pleasures and “We” Avoid Pains: The Role of Self‐Regulatory Goals in Information Processing and Persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research, 28(1), 33-49.
Brooks, A. W. (2013). Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (in press).
Crowe, E., & Higgins, E. T. (1997). Regulatory focus and strategic inclinations: Promotion and prevention in decision making. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 69, 117-132.
Freitas, A.L., & Higgins, E. T. (2002). Enjoying goal-directed action: The role of regulatory fit. Psychological Science, 13, 1-6.
Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300.