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What Zaps a High Achiever’s Performance Lights a Low Achiever’s Fire

Posted Jan 25 2010 12:00am

High achievers do many things well, particularly when they’re convinced that excellence requires their utmost performance.  Low achievers, however, have a hard time getting motivated and often find themselves coughing in the dust of the high achievers’ hustle.

But like so many generalizations, this one has a limit.   

A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology uncovered a variable that knocks this scenario on its head, and it has everything to do with what makes low achievers tick.

Researchers conducted multiple studies to evaluate how participants’ attitudes toward achievement influenced their performance.  In one study, participants were “primed” with high-achievement words (related to winning, excellence, etc.) flashed on a computer screen. Each word appeared only for an instant, too fast for conscious deliberation. Participants with high-achievement motivation performed significantly better on tasks after being primed with the words than those with low-achievement motivation. 

In another study, participants completing a verbal proficiency task (word-search puzzles) were interrupted, and then given a choice to either resume the task or switch to a task they perceived as more enjoyable. Those with high-achievement motivation were significantly more likely to return to the verbal task than the low achievers.

The results of those studies are predictable and buttress what we generally know about high and low achievers.  But the final study was different.  Participants were primed with high-achievement words (e.g. excel, compete, win) and then asked to complete a word-search puzzle.  But instead of describing the task as a serious test of verbal proficiency, the researchers called it “fun.” 

The results: participants with high-achievement motivation did significantly worse on the task than low achievers. 

The study authors believe that when high achievers are primed to achieve excellence, the idea that a task is “fun” undercuts their desire to excel.  If something is enjoyable and fun, how could it possibly be a credible gauge of achievement?

Conversely, low achievers who are similarly primed with achievement words perceive a “fun” task as worthwhile. Not only is their motivation to perform improved, so is their ability.

This intriguing twist says much about why one-size-fits-all educational strategies so often fail.  For students motivated to achieve excellence, making tasks entertaining may actually undermine their performance. Likewise, for those not normally motivated to achieve, describing a task as urgent and serious yields the predictable result. 

It also sheds light on the “lazy genius” phenomenon. Everyone has known someone who is remarkably intelligent but gets mediocre grades and doesn’t seem to care.  Clearly, low-achievers are not necessarily less intelligent or less capable than high-achievers; instead, they just don’t respond well to status quo motivational cues.  A jolt of enjoyment could turn that around.
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Hart W, & Albarracín D (2009). The effects of chronic achievement motivation and achievement primes on the activation of achievement and fun goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97 (6), 1129-41 PMID: 19968423

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