From Dreaming to Doing: How We Set and Achieve Goals
In this episode, we look at an essential ingredient of human behavior: motivation.
Why do we do what we do? What factors drive us? And how do things like competition with others help us achieve our goals?
These are the questions most interesting to Szu-chi Huang, an associate professor of marketing with a specific interest in motivation. “Competition definitely increases motivation,” says Huang. “It makes attaining the goal more valuable.”
In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Huang and host Matt Abrahams explore the intersection of human psychology, behavior, and goal attainment — and how communication connects them all.
Matt Abrahams: So much of our communication is about motivation — motivating others and motivating ourselves. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.
I’m really excited to speak with Szu-chi Huang, an associate professor of marketing at Stanford GSB. Szu-chi’s research focuses on motivation science and shared goal pursuit. She studies things such as competition, healthy eating, and dynamic feedback.
Hi, Szu-chi, welcome to the podcast. I am super excited to have you here.
Szu-chi Huang: Thank you, Matt. It’s so good to be here.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Let’s go ahead and get started. In preparing to speak with you, I reviewed a lot of your work, and I’m struck by the variety of your research, from advertising to robots and goals and competition. I’m curious, what motivates the research you do?
Szu-chi Huang: Yeah, that is a great question to start with, because definitely I have pretty broad interests. I actually started getting intrigued by the topic related to motivation because I was working at an advertising agency, JWT, back in Taiwan. And at that time in advertising, the biggest question is, how do we motivate our customers to come back to the store to purchase more products? And I realized, we don’t really have a lot of answers about that.
And that eventually motivated me to join academia. And therefore, I do a lot of projects related to motivation and goal pursuits, talking about how people’s motivation could change from one stage to another, or how we potentially collaborate or compete when we are working on goals together.
And then, because of that, through my students, I started branching out to look at other types of motivation, such as how do we motivate donors to donate money or to volunteer, and also looking at how new technologies shape our motivation — for instance, the use of fintech service robots, all these new technologies can affect our motivation in the sense that it can increase our motivation to the do the things we love, or sometimes decrease our motivation. And that’s why I started looking into these other areas.
Matt Abrahams: It’s so exciting, the things you study, and I love that the story comes from your own curiosity and need when you were doing advertising, to see that we just didn’t know enough about motivation. And we’ll get to talking about motivation soon, for sure.
We did a series of podcast episodes where we talked about communication and decision-making and decision science with some of our GSB colleagues. And you teach a class, and I love the name — it’s called The Brains and Guts of Decision-Making. Can you share one or two key ideas that you cover in that class?
Szu-chi Huang: Definitely. So, The Brains and Guts of Decision-Making, I teach that with Jonathan Levav. So, we are co-directors of the program. So, he takes care of the brain part, and I take care of the gut part, because I am a motivation scientist. And the two main takeaways I have for students in that class is, the first thing is that it’s all about needs. So in order to think about how we shape people’s behavior, it’s about understanding what needs they have.
And oftentimes when we think about a company or a product, we kind of easily zoom into one need we believe people have, but it’s actually way richer than that. I give the example of Nike. Nike sells shoes, and shoes satisfy one need, physiological need, so we don’t have to hurt our foot when we walk. But of course that’s way more than that. Nike also sells self-esteem needs, social needs — so you can jog with others, share data — self-actualizing needs because through jogging you become fitter, closer to your ideal self. So, the needs can be all kinds of needs. And it’s about picking up the right motivation to speak to your target audience. So, that’s the first takeaway usually I hope our students will have.
The second one is closely tied to needs and motivations, is emotionality. Because when our needs are satisfied, we get happy. So, there’s a lot of positive emotion there. But when they are dissatisfied, that’s when we get really mad and grumpy, so we have a lot of negative emotion.
Recent research shows that emotionality is really key in all our decision-making. Researchers were able to find that emotionality behind the reviews actually account for way more variance than the content of the reviews. So they were able to actually link the emotionality behind the reviews to predict the success of thousands of movies, millions of books, and restaurant reservations.
So it’s not so much about what the reviewers actually write about, but the emotionality behind the reviews that drives people’s decisions. And so motivation, emotionality, these are the two things I want to highlight.
Matt Abrahams: Wow. Well, when I look at my Nike shoes sitting in the corner, and the fact that I haven’t run in them, it sometimes makes me feel bad, but I find that fascinating. So, we talk on this podcast a lot about knowing your audience, and we talk a lot about their needs. And many of us when we start our communication, we start from the wrong place. We start from, what do we want to say, rather than thinking about the needs. And what I like about what you said is, you have to uncover all of the needs. It might not just be one thing, and that’s fascinating.
And the other aspect you said, about the emotionality — so, it’s not even so much what you say, but it’s the emotion behind it that we’re decoding and reading and can be motivational. Really, really interesting. And I find that to be true for myself. When I read a review of a restaurant or a book, I am taking away, how did that person feel about that?
Szu-chi Huang: Definitely, and it’s really fundamental because that’s how human beings connect. And that’s why we categorize it as the gut reaction. That’s a lot of times the key indicator of our perception, attitude, and behavior.
Matt Abrahams: That’s great. And Jonathan was on recently, and he shared fantastic insights too. I can only imagine your students take away amazing things from both of you.
You also did research that looked at what you call information avoidance. Can you share what your findings were, and discuss how choosing to avoid some information can affect our motivation?
Szu-chi Huang: Definitely. This is actually one of the most fascinating findings I have discovered, and also one of the most personally relevant. So, in modern days, we know we have all kinds of social information — I log into Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, I get to know what all my friends and colleagues are doing. And so, it’s really an era where we have way more social information than we need.
From a motivation perspective, what that means is we get all kinds of social benchmarks. We know how much progress other people are making on goals very similar to our own — it could be health goals, family, time goals, or career goals.
And what we found in this research is we don’t always want that information. Specifically, when we are starting to work on a new goal, we love that information, because we want to learn from what other people were doing, and we want to learn from their success. Also, as we get close to actually reaching our goals, we are usually feeling great about ourselves, so at that moment we don’t mind having those information, because it can help us feel like we are doing great and we are winning, and that feels great.
But what really is critical is halfway through our goal pursuit process, that is the moment where we lose curiosity, we don’t really feel the need to learn more about the goal anymore. We are not fully confident that we can achieve our goal yet — so, we are not in the late stage. So, that halfway point is when we have a lot of insecurity. We are losing a little bit of motivation there. In that moment, we don’t want to know how well other people are doing. So, that is when social information becomes really threatening, and that is when we want to avoid it.
But what we found is that if you give people a choice to actually avoid information — they can mute a notification, move their eyes away from the source of information — what happens is they now don’t have the benchmark that actually motivations them. So, information avoidance can actually lead to decreased motivation.
And so, after I found that, I used that piece of research to remind myself. So, whenever I work on my goals and I feel really stressed out and I feel that other people are doing great, better than me, I want to avoid the information, those are the moments I realize actually, I shouldn’t be afraid. I should actually see those information, because that will give the benchmark I need to motivate myself to move forward. So, that is the key learning I personally have from that research.
Matt Abrahams: I so relate to that. I’m by nature a competitive person, and I get really excited with friends and others, and we’re going to go embark on this, if it’s doing some kind of exercise or losing weight. And after I’ve been doing it a little while, I do get that insecurity, can I keep this up, is it going to go? And then when I see my friends seeing more progress — and of course they’re very proud to share that progress — it makes me feel really bad, and I do tune it out.
But what I’m hearing you say is I should go against that desire to tune it out and actually use it to keep that motivation going.
Szu-chi Huang: What we found is that the moment we feel the most insecure about having social information is the moment where those information really is valuable to have.
Matt Abrahams: I love counterintuitive things, and I’m going to try that, because I’ve got some friends and we’ve got this little thing around health going on. And I’m going to dive back in, because I’ve muted some of that information. So, thank you for that, we’ll see. I’ll check in with you in a little bit, and we’ll see how much it helped.
Szu-chi Huang: I look forward to hearing your progress on that, Matt.
Matt Abrahams: Okay, now even more pressure. No, it’s all good, it’s all good. Can you share what your research suggests are some concerns and best practices for designing motivating competitions?
Szu-chi Huang: So, I have work that more directly looks at actual competitions, zero-sum games where there is an incentive or reward and you have to beat others to get it. And based on the research, we do know that competition definitely increases motivation. It makes attaining a goal more valuable.
But what prior research hasn’t looked at is, is it better to be ahead or behind when you’re in the competition? So, we actually look at all kinds of data sources, from working out to class performance, and what we found is that both winning or losing can motivate you, but they motivate you at different phases of the competition. So in the beginning of the competition, usually at that moment we are looking for a signal that we can actually win. So, we’re doing some kind of probability assessment. If there’s no chance of winning, we will just disengage instead of investing more resources into it.
So, this kind of a winning signal or feeling that you’re ahead is so helpful in the beginning. If you are already losing in the beginning, you will just give up.
But, winning signal doesn’t always work. As you get closer to the late phase of competition, if you are still winning, then the natural tendency is you relax. You feel like you don’t need to work hard anymore. And we forget about the fact that this is not an individual goal, it’s a competitive goal, and you have no idea what your opponent will do in that last stage or last round of the game. So usually in the later phase, being behind slightly is actually way more motivating, because it gives you a very clear benchmark to achieve.
So what do you do if you’re actually winning the whole way through? What we did in one of the experiments is we actually ran a used book donation drive — it’s a donation competition across two campuses in China. So, you naturally have a winning campus that is doing well and a losing campus a few weeks in that were collecting books, but not so great.
So what we did is, of course we told the losing campus that they are losing and they increased their effort, but we also want to motivate the winning campus to continue donating used books. So what we did is, instead of telling them they’re winning, we compared them to their campus past performance last year. So yes, you’re winning, but comparing to how many books you were able to raise last year, you’re slightly behind that benchmark. It is a self-comparison benchmark, but turns out even that comparison can be meaningful to motivate the winning campus to continue donating books.
So, that could be an important takeaway for all of us who are listening to the podcast who are winning right now. It’s great to win, and it sends a great signal to help you stay motivated. But if you feel like you’re actually demotivated by that signal because it doesn’t seem you need to put in more effort, maybe comparing to your past self could be another way to motivate you.
Matt Abrahams: Well, I really like that there are different points of comparison and different types of comparison to motivate. And as people who design competitions, if you will, we can actually build in some of these metrics. The information that we give to people can be really interesting. I think of business leaders who might be trying to motivate internal teams, or across different companies, how we might give them feedback in a way that keeps everybody motivated, regardless of if you’re ahead or behind.
Szu-chi Huang: We actually talk to companies a lot, and also schools. You have students who are performing well, or sales teams who are performing well, and you really don’t want them to relax. They should try to achieve more. But you also can’t take away the message that they are indeed winning compared to their peers. So it is important to actually change the benchmark for those people so they have something to strive for.
Matt Abrahams: Right. And one other point you made that really stuck with me is, if you feel like you’re losing early on, you just give up. So, that’s an important time period to give some motivational feedback so that you can keep people going. Because I’ve seen that happen. I’ve been an assistant coach on some of my kids’ teams, or I’ve seen that in companies where I’ve worked, where if people don’t feel like they have the skills right off the bat, they just check out.
Szu-chi Huang: That’s why we always say that in the early stage, the most important signal is attainability signal. People need to believe that the goal is attainable or the competition is winnable, so they will continue working hard. And so like you said, we can’t just think about giving the same feedback to everybody. For the people who really need that attainability signal, we need to kind of give them different feedback so that we encourage them from the perspective that yes, what you have can actually help you achieve the goal. Stop comparing to other people, maybe think about what ability you have already learned, or skills you have.
So highlighting attainability is going to be critical in the beginning. And somehow creating that benchmark, that additional goal to strive for, additional comparison to strive for, that will be important at the end.
Matt Abrahams: It’s striking me in several things you’ve shared with us that there are general principles, but it comes down to really tailoring your motivational approach based on different people’s needs and their individuality. And I’ve heard you say that several times, and I think that’s a really important takeaway for all of us, is that there’s general guiding principles, but what you know about the individual or the team really drives the tailored communication that you have to them.
Szu-chi Huang: The biggest part of my research finding is on the temporal dynamics of goal pursuit. And the important aspect of this is in the past, we tended to think about what motivates people as a static thing. So, if I figure out one variable, one factor, I just give that to everybody. But the temporal dynamics model says that it should be dynamic. The feedback we give to people should be dynamic depending on who they are, what skills they think they have, and where they come from.
And also, as they make more progress, during a competition or pursuing their personal goal, the feedback should be dynamic as well. We can’t keep giving them the same kind of signal. So, changing that and tailoring that for everybody’s needs is going to be critical in sustaining motivation.
Matt Abrahams: So, this is a beautiful transition to another question I have for you, which is this notion of what I hear you say is, your feedback has to be different based on where people are in their journey, and I know you along with our colleague Jennifer Aaker have done some research into how having a mindset, a journey mindset, can actually really influence how you achieve goals. Would you share more about that study? I found this really fundamentally changing for me, personally.
Szu-chi Huang: It was personal for me too. That research finding has a lot of relevance for how I think about success. And definitely the motivation for that work, it came from the fact that we tend to think about goal success as a destination. We reach the destination, and we feel great. But what happens when you reach the destination is there’s nothing else left to be done.
So a lot of times people graduate and they stop learning, or they lose weight and so they stop working out. And fundamentally, we want people to continue and continue working out or monitoring what they eat. Those good behaviors should continue. So what we found in this research is that it is important to think about goal success not just as a destination, but also as a journey. It doesn’t actually have to be a journey forward, thinking about the next goal, but it’s actually more important to use it as a journey to look backwards, to look at what you have done right during this process that helped you achieve the goal, who were instrumental for you during this journey.
Matt Abrahams: Well, I’ve enjoyed this very much. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Is that okay with you?
Szu-chi Huang: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: Great. Then let’s get started. If you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Szu-chi Huang: It actually already came up earlier in our talk, and I just need three words: know your audience.
Matt Abrahams: We have heard that a lot on this podcast, and what you bring to that is really a lot of depth and richness. So, it’s about emotionality, it’s about understanding that audiences aren’t homogenous, that there’s differentiations and nuance in there.
Szu-chi Huang: And to know that they evolve, they will change.
Matt Abrahams: Right, over time, that journey, that’s so important. It’s not static, excellent, thank you. Who’s a communicator that you admire, and why?
Szu-chi Huang: I have to say Michelle Obama. And I think every time I hear her speak, there are four things that come to mind: clarity, confidence, elegance, and empathy, and I think a speech that has all four elements are very powerful.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, and you role model some of that yourself. I mean, the clarity of the information, the elegance of the research you’ve done — excellent choice. Number three, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Szu-chi Huang: So, the first one, I have to come back to the same point, know your audience. Specifically, know why they are there to listen to the message. And the second one would be to tailor your content, connecting your content to that audience. And the third one, make it personal. You also have to connect the content to you, so you’re not just lecturing something that they can hear from anybody else. They’re actually learning specifically from you.
Matt Abrahams: All three of those are critical. I want to put an exclamation point after that personal part, because I think that’s something that we don’t think about, and sometimes people don’t feel comfortable doing, but it really does make a difference, if you feel the person has a direct connection to that content, it’s meaningful to them. Thank you for reminding us of that, that’s really important.
Well, thank you, Szu-chi. This has been wonderful. You have certainly motivated me to be more interested in motivation. I love your research and how it covers so many different areas, and really makes us think about who we’re talking to, when we’re talking to them, and how we can motivate our audience. Thank you so much.
Szu-chi Huang: Thank you so much for having me, Matt.
Matt Abrahams: You’ve been listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced my Michael Reilly, Jenny Luna, and me, Matt Abrahams. Find more resources and join our conversation on LinkedIn by searching Think Fast, Talk Smart. Please download and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
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