Fear can be a strong motivator. People who are afraid of living in poverty may be motivated to pursue any career option in order to avoid financial destitution. In a similar way, individuals who are afraid that they may develop specific health-related problems may work tirelessly to maintain optimal physical condition. Fear often has been linked to motivation, both positively and negatively. Until recently, however, few studies examined how fear of failure affects activity-related performance.
Jocelyn J. Bélanger of the University of Maryland sought to determine how negative feedback on specific tasks affected motivation in individuals fearful of failure (obsessive) and those who were passionate about their activity but less worried about setbacks (harmonious). In a series of experiments, Bélanger found that individuals who are passionate about achieving their goal perform differently based on their style of commitment. In particular, those with obsessive passion responded with positive motivation to negative/failure cues while those with harmonious passion saw no change in performance. In fact, the harmonious passion participants maintained the same level of performance throughout the experiments, regardless of whether they received success or failure feedback.
“Obsessive passion, associated with defensiveness, predicts performance aimed at avoiding failure, whereas harmonious passion, associated with a secure self-concept, predicts stable performance,” Bélanger said. These findings suggest that fear works as a motivator for individuals with obsessive passion. Bélanger believes that people who feel their sense of self is threatened by failure of goal attainment may unconsciously respond to that threat by increasing their performance. However, those who have harmonious passion traits are less threatened and view the feedback, positive or negative, merely as information needed to continue the process of attaining their goals. The results of this study offer valuable information that could be used for the development of goal-attainment strategies in the professional, academic, and sports arenas, and could help clinicians better understand an individual’s reaction to goal-achievement outcomes.
Bélanger, J. J., Lafrenière, M.-A. K., Vallerand, R. J., Kruglanski, A. W. (2012). Driven by fear: The effect of success and failure information on passionate individuals’ performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029585
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