🔥 How Stress Kills Motivation
Stress makes you more likely to choose the easy way out
Everyone knows that stress is harmful, but there’s serious scientific debate around exactly how it affects cognitive ability. Some argue it directly damages your ability to control your actions, others argue it has no impact, and still others argue that it damages particular types of cognitive control but not others. The data tell a confusing story to say the least.
Fortunately, a new study has added some fresh light to the picture. It shows that one major reason to stress about stress is because it weakens your motivation.
🐔 Choosing the easy way out
In a recent study, Mario Bogdanov and his colleagues at McGill University recruited 40 participants to complete a 20-min task. The task showed people a couple of circles on a screen, each with a unique pattern. Whenever a person selected one of those patterns, they saw a number. If the number appeared in yellow, the participant had to indicate whether it was an even or odd number. If the number appeared in blue, the participant had to indicate whether it was a low (1-4) or high (6-9) number.
Each of the patterned circles had its own little secret. One of them—let’s call it the “demanding cue”—switched between yellow and blue tasks 90% of the time. The other “easy cue” switched between yellow and blue only 10% of the time. Previous behavioral studies have shown that people find task-switching more difficult than repeatedly doing the same task. That’s what made the demanding cue so demanding in this experiment.
In addition to seeing how accurately people solved the number problems, the researchers checked how often people chose the demanding cue and how stress affected their choice.
To amplify people’s stress levels, the researchers used a task that closely reflected a real-life stressful activity. They put people through a mock job interview in front of a couple of very unimpressed interviewers. They even asked everyone to do some tricky arithmetic in front of the panel.
The study ran across 2 days. Half of the participants did the stress induction on the first day, and the other half did the stress induction on the second day. This allowed the researchers to compare high-stress performance to low-stress performance for everyone in the study.
The stress induction definitely worked: It boosted the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) in people’s bodies and elevated their heart rate and blood pressure.
But the key question was how stress affected the mind. It didn’t actually change how well people solved the number problems during demanding cues. Although people felt stress, they could effectively do what they had to do when challenged.
Their choices on the other hand were affected by stress. Under high stress, people were less likely to choose the demanding cue. Although they could perform well with demanding cues if they had to, they didn’t feel motivated to take them on.
The most extreme differences in motivation appeared early on in the task. With high stress, people chose the easy cue around 65% of the time. With low stress, people chose the easy cue less than 50% of the time—they instead preferred to challenge themselves.
All of this is important because personal progress comes from a willingness to take on challenges. Nobody fulfills dreams and develops themselves by taking the easy route. We need to understand our weaknesses, tackle unfamiliar territory, and embrace uncomfortable problems.
Stress dampens your motivation to take these big leaps.
⭐️ Takeaway tips
Motivation fluctuates: When you’re struggling to feel motivated, don’t beat yourself up about it. Like most feelings, motivation naturally fluctuates and everyone has high and low points. Frustration only leads to more stress and stress only leads to even less motivation.
Stress management: Explore new ways of managing stress if you want to boost your motivation. Physical exercise, nature walks, and meditation are all effective stress reduction tools based on current evidence.
Avoid the easy way out: Embrace challenges and do things that scare you. If you’re anxious about particular activities (e.g. public speaking or solo traveling), it might be a sign that you have a lot to gain from doing those activities. It’s natural to feel stressed about territory you haven’t fully explored before, but it’s also important to take on challenges and overcome that stress rather than allowing it to get worse in the background. You can read more about this in one of my previous newsletters.
💡 A final quote
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
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📬 I love to hear from readers. Reach out any time with comments or questions.
👋 Until next time,
Erman Misirlisoy, PhD