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Why the risk of losing is such a powerful motivator


In any discussion around motivation, it’s almost certain that the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi will enter the fray at some point.  His work on what it takes to enter a state of ‘flow’ underpins much of our thinking on intrinsic motivation.

Csikszentmihalyi has recently published a paper with colleagues that has explored this issue further, and specifically what role the threat of losing plays in our motivation levels.

The study saw participants playing a video game on the Nintendo Wii.  The gamers thought they were playing against the computer, but in reality they were playing against a real player that was hidden from view.

The human player was something of an expert at the game, and varied his playing ability to give some opponents an easier ride than others.  The aim was to decipher whether players preferred to win comfortably against a lesser player or to lose against a challenging opponent.

Interestingly, it emerged that enjoyment came both from a sense that they were playing well, but also from the suspense that came from not knowing the outcome.

On the surface, these seem to counter one another, as a sense of competence would arrive from beating the opponent, whereas the suspense would come from having a close battle with them.  Nevertheless, it emerged that the highest enjoyment levels were achieved when the contest was close.

The findings were tested further via a second study that saw the gaming experience manipulated to ensure that some contests were easy to win and others less so.

At the end of the game period, the players were told that there was time for one more game if they wanted, with those in close contests choosing to come back for more in much higher numbers than those who won easily.

It makes sense for anyone that has played sports to some degree.  Only this weekend for instance, I rode with someone that was just a little bit better than I was and not only performed well as a result but enjoyed the experience more because of this challenge of keeping up.

A sense of challenge and uncertainty is certainly a significant motivator, and indeed the sense of flow itself is generally obtained when we’re pushing our talents to the limit.

The researchers hope to test the hypothesis further on a wider range of tasks to see how water tight it is, which is something I look forward to reading.

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