Motivated by Fear: Exploring How Negative Feedback Influences Performance

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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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sandra


    August 29th, 2012 at 1:59 PM

    While I see that both forms of passion can work as a motivator, it seemes that it is far healthir to be motivated for the achievement of a good goal versus working hard to simply stave off a fear of failure. I know that end the results could be the same, but you are working on this for different reasons and therefore the very way that this affects you will be different. I want to work toward a goal because doing so makes me feel good, makes me feel like I am making a difference. If I am working hard at something simply to prevent something bad from occurring, it becomes less about enjoying myself and working for something positive and instead comes to feel more like a chore.

  • DeA


    August 29th, 2012 at 4:24 PM

    I guess that at least finding something that motivates you to do and to change, even if it is out of fear, is better than feeling not motivated at all, right?

  • eddy


    August 29th, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    while fear could help some people prep up their performance,I would much prefer having people who are stable and can work towards a goal without there being any fear as employees.there is only so much you can drive people into a corner to force them to has to come from within.only then can a task be labeled as satisfying not only for an employer but also for an employee.and that is a sign of a good career and job and employee satisfaction is a factor as important as employer satisfaction if not more.

  • johnny


    August 30th, 2012 at 12:52 AM

    well,fear is not always a bad thing,ya know!if someone threatens me to perform better then that is obviously unhealthy but if I’m motivated to improve due to my fear of losing my job then what’s wrong with that?

  • Gina segar

    Gina segar

    August 30th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    The cold hard truth though is that if you are motivated to do something for the wrong reasons then you will either be unable to achieve that goal or you will be unable to maintain it.

    Take losing weight, for example. Many people go to the doctor, and if he tells them that they have to lose weight or die, then a lot of them will immediately begin working to lose weight, but not necessarily because they want to. They do it out of fear of dying young. But I would be willing to bet that those who make the decision to lose weight with a more posivie goal in mind, like improving their health, would be a lot more successful in the end than someone who does it to prevent something that they see as negative, such as dying.

  • david peters

    david peters

    August 30th, 2012 at 12:17 PM

    motivated by fear?never even thought it could be possible.fear if anything can only make me anxious and will only bring down my performance.different people have different boosters for performance but I’m really surprised fear can HELP certain people.

  • FRED


    August 31st, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    Gina segar:The fear of death will ensure that they do not get lazy with their work out routine and will continue to adhere to a strict diet. Now lets think – would an average person adhere that strictly to a diet and his workout schedule if not for the fear? We all know how much gym membership are even used all around!

  • vinnie


    October 27th, 2015 at 7:58 AM

    who made this

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