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Research Highlights

Understanding Motivation

By Andrea Bonezzi, Assistant Professor of Marketing

Andrea Bonezzi research on motivation

... Roughly halfway toward the goal, when both the initial state and the end state are distant, ... we might lose motivation to keep working toward that goal.

Whether you’re working for a business with a goal of, say, increasing market share, or you’re hoping to lose 20 pounds or have vowed to read Moby Dick, you may have noticed that somewhere around midway your motivation wanes. According to new research by NYU Stern Assistant Marketing Professor Andrea Bonezzi, this kind of fourth-inning slump is a common, predictable pattern.

In “Stuck in the Middle: The Psychophysics of Goal Pursuit,” Bonezzi and co-authors C. Miguel Brendl and Matteo De Angelis show that people’s motivation to continue pursuing their goals hits the skids about halfway to the end and doesn’t pick up again until the goal is closer in sight.

Motivation reaches its nadir roughly halfway toward the goal, because both the initial state and the end state seem distant, and this creates the impression that the effort expended is not paying off. Take Moby Dick: Reading 10 additional pages after having read the first 20 seems worth the effort, says Bonezzi. “Reading 10 additional pages when only 20 are left also seems worth doing,” he adds. “But roughly halfway toward the goal, when both the initial state and the end state are distant, reading the same 10 additional pages does not seem to get us anywhere. As a consequence we might lose motivation to keep working toward that goal.” The authors chart this motivational pattern as a U-shaped curve.

Organizations can use this information to create timely programs that encourage employees to keep pursuing organizational goals. The insights are also relevant for companies that offer reward programs in which customers have the opportunity to earn points to redeem toward prizes.