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New psychology research indicates people can harness discomfort to motivate themselves

New research provides evidence that encouraging people to seek discomfort can help to motivate psychological growth. The findings have been published in the journal Psychological Science.

“In prior work, my co-authors and I found that the more fun goal pursuit is, the more people persist in their goals (eg, exercising longer when the workout is fun than when the workout is useful for health),” said Kaitlin Woolley, an associate professor at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the corresponding author of the new research.

“Yet it is not always easy for goals to be fun. We wanted to study a way to help people advance goals that are challenging and difficult (like feeling awkward when practicing public speaking or taking an improvisation class). This is a huge problem for society, as people struggle and fail to pursue important goals for this reason; we offer a solution: rather than perceive discomfort as a cue to stop goal pursuit, reframing it as a sign of progress helps people persist in difficult goals.”

For their study, the researchers conducted a field experiment with 557 improv students at The Second City Training Center in Chicago to examine whether being encouraged to seek discomfort would result in increased persistence and risk-taking. “This is the first study to come out of a collaboration between behavioral scientists and the Second City comedy club,” Woolley said.

Prior to a “Give Focus” improvisation exercise, some participants were encouraged to feel awkward. They were instructed that “feeling uncomfortable is a sign that the exercise is working.” During the exercise one student had “focus” and moved about the room while the other students remained frozen. The person “with focus” was required to hold onto their role de ella for as long as possible before “passing the focus” to someone else.

Students who were encouraged to seek discomfort tended to hold focus for longer periods of time and were more likely to do something out of the ordinary compared to students who received no such encouragement.

“Our research finds that people can harness discomfort (eg, feeling awkward and uncomfortable when practicing improv) to motivate themselves to achieve important goals,” Woolley told PsyPost. “So while personal growth is sometimes uncomfortable, we find that embracing discomfort can be motivating.”

In four additional online experiments, which included 1,606 participants, the researchers examined how being encouraged to seek discomfort impacted writing about an emotional life event, being receptive to information about the COVID-19 pandemic, considering opposing political viewpoints, and being open to new information .

Participants who wrote about an emotional issue that affected their lives were more likely to feel that they were growing emotionally and developing coping skills when they were instructed to seek discomfort.

The researchers also found that participants were more motivated to read news articles about COVID-19 when encouraged to feel uncomfortable. Similarly, Republicans and Democrats were more motivated to read viewpoints from the opposing political party after being told that “feeling uncomfortable is a sign that you are taking in new information — it’s feedback that you are educating yourself.”

Finally, participants were more motivated to read about gun violence when they received instructions to seek discomfort.

“People often want to improve themselves, yet balk at the process of personal growth, which can be challenging and uncomfortable,” Woolley told PsyPost. “Indeed, people often see discomfort as a sign to ‘stop’ pursuing a goal. Yet discomfort often means that people are making progress.”

As far as limitations go, Woolley said the study has two main caveats: “First, there are times when discomfort should be a cue to stop rather than a sign of progress (eg, sharp pain when exercising can signal injury, and extreme emotional pain when writing can signal a mental breakdown). In such cases, seeking discomfort could be harmful — it could encourage people to ignore a cue to quit. Second, our participants were all US residents. Research is needed to examine whether these insights extend to people outside the United States.”

The study, “Motivating Personal Growth by Seeking Discomfort”, was authored by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach.

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