What Motivates Someone? Part 2: Fear

What motivates someone to do well? This three part blog looks at the three different ways you could motivate someone: part 1 (focusing on reward), part 2 (the impact of fear) and part 3 (looking at personal success).

In this part, we look at the effects of motivating someone with fear.

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The Story

In 2009 Team Sky launched with grand ambitions: to create the first British winner of the Tour de France within 5 years. Their first Tour de France was a disappointing one, with Bradley Wiggins finishing 24th, leading many to doubt that the team could realise their ambitions. So, how did this team transform itself in just two years, culminating in Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Chris Froome (2013) winning the Tour?

The team principal, David Brailsford says that ‘there are two things that make you change your behaviour. The suffering has to be enough or the reward has to be enough. For me, in that first year the suffering was certainly enough. We’ve not stopped working since, we’ve been working our arses off and we won’t stop. For me, the key thing is that the pain of losing is bigger than the emotion of winning. That feeling enables me to drive the whole team on’. So how effective are suffering and the fear or future losses as a motivator?


The Science behind fear as a motivator

What Dave Brailsford is describing is loss aversion. This refers to people’s preference for avoiding losses rather than looking to acquire gains. Some people claim that, psychologically speaking, losses can be twice as powerful as wins.

In America, there is a big debate about whether teacher pay should be linked to student achievement, and if so, how best to do it. Recently, researchers wanted to see if they could tap in to the powerful effect of loss aversion. They divided teachers into two groups. One group of teachers was paid a $4,000 bonus at the start of the year and told they would have it to repay it if their students did not do well. The other group was told that they would receive their bonus at the end of the year if their students did well. The result? The students whose teacher received the bonus at the start of the year increased their maths scores by 10% compared to students with similar backgrounds. The students whose teacher was offered the bonus at the end of the year did not make similar gains.

There has also been research on how this affects students as well as teachers. One of the authors of Freakonomics is a big believer in the power of loss aversion and believes that if you decide to financially reward students getting good grades (a practice that is becoming popular by many parents in the UK), then it should be framed as loss not a gain (e.g. "Here is £20, if you fail I am taking it away.").


Not So Clear Cut?

The problem with focusing on loss aversion, or playing to people's fear, is that it may be a short-term motivator. If it goes on for too long or if there is too much fear, it can result in a fear of failure.  A fear of failure has been associated with pessimism, stress, unstable self-esteem, cheating and low resilience. This is not just limited to students. Teaching has become highly pressurised, due to the need to meet targets, being observed and Ofsted inspections. Recently, Sir Cary Cooper, a professor in organisational psychology, said that out of the 80 jobs he has studied, teaching ranks in the top 3 of the most stressful.


Implications For Schools

Due to growing exam pressure, some schools are publicly ranking student’s attainment, presumably in a bid to motivate students through the fear and embarrassment of being at the bottom of the list. A recent report by the National Union of Teachers found that an overt focus on exams is damaging pupils’ mental health and self-esteem, and that drilling for tests has narrowed what children are learning.

The Sutton Trust have highlighted a study where pupils were paid £80 at the beginning of each half-term and were told they would lose £10 if they didn’t do well enough in their attendance or behaviour, and £30 if they underperformed on their classwork or homework. The result? It did not significantly improve GCSE results. The Sutton Trust believe more effective strategies exist.


Summary: The Pros and Cons

On the plus side, fear and loss aversion can be a powerful motivator, maybe even more so in some situations than rewards; however, there is a cost. Too much focus on what you stand to lose if results are not good can lead to a fear of failure, thus crippling confidence and demotivating both staff and students.


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