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How Positive and Negative Feedback Motivate Goal Pursuit

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Abstract

This article explores the feedback individuals give, seek, and respond to in the course of pursuing their goals. We propose that positive feedback motivates goal pursuit when it signals an increase in goal commitment, whereas negative feedback motivates goal pursuit when it signals insufficient goal progress. We review research suggesting that whether individuals are drawn to evaluate their level of commitment versus rate of progress determines the type of feedback (positive or negative) that best motivates them to pursue their goals. We then review research suggesting that these effects of feedback operate by inducing positive and negative general moods as well as specific emotions.
How Positive and Negative Feedback Motivate Goal
Pursuit
Ayelet Fishbach
1
*, Tal Eyal
2
, and Stacey R. Finkelstein
1
1
University of Chicago
2
Ben Gurion University
Abstract
This article explores the feedback individuals give, seek, and respond to in the course of pursuing
their goals. We propose that positive feedback motivates goal pursuit when it signals an increase
in goal commitment, whereas negative feedback motivates goal pursuit when it signals insufficient
goal progress. We review research suggesting that whether individuals are drawn to evaluate their
level of commitment versus rate of progress determines the type of feedback (positive or negative)
that best motivates them to pursue their goals. We then review research suggesting that these
effects of feedback operate by inducing positive and negative general moods as well as specific
emotions.
Feedback is essential for goal pursuit. Information on successful and failed actions allows
individuals to adjust and direct their efforts to match the challenge they are facing (Bandura,
1991; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Festinger, 1954; Locke & Latham, 1990). Consequently,
there are specific social roles associated with providing feedback on goal pursuit. For exam-
ple, educators, coaches, and bosses all provide feedback that helps individuals monitor the
level and direction of their actions to ensure they meet their goals. In addition, people seek
feedback, including praise and criticism, from those surrounding them: friends, family
members, colleagues, and neighbors. The feedback people seek can refer to their mastery
goals, such as how well they perform a new skill, to their self-improvement goals, such as
exercising or dieting, and to their relationship goals, such as how well they maintain their
social connections. Across these various feedback agents and goals, we explore the circum-
stances under which positive feedback on accomplishments, strengths, and correct responses
versus negative feedback on lack of accomplishments, weaknesses, and incorrect responses is
more effective in motivating goal pursuit and hence is more frequently sought and given.
A number of theories offer a universal answer to our question, attesting that either
positive or negative feedback is generally more effective. Several motivation theories attest
that positive feedback is more effective for motivating goal pursuit than negative feedback
because it increases outcome expectancy of the goal and perceived self-efficacy of the
pursuer (Atkinson, 1964; Bandura & Cervone, 1983; Lewin, 1935; Weiner, 1974; Zajonc
& Brickman, 1969). According to this theoretical approach, positive feedback increases
people’s confidence that they are able to pursue their goals, leading people to expect suc-
cessful goal attainment. Negative feedback, in contrast, undermines people’s confidence
in their ability to pursue their goals and their expectations of success. Because positive
feedback is effective, various social agents use positive feedback to encourage individuals
to internalize or integrate new goals to their self-concept, with the expectation that these
individuals will then be more committed to pursue the goal on subsequent occasions
(Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4/8 (2010): 517–530, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00285.x
ª2010 The Authors
Journal Compilation ª2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Other motivation theories make quite the opposite prediction, suggesting that negative
feedback increases motivation more than positive feedback. For example, cybernetic
models of self-regulation propose that positive feedback on successes provides a sense of
partial goal attainment, signaling that less effort is needed to accomplish the goal. In con-
trast, negative feedback on lack of successes signals that more effort is needed and encour-
ages goal pursuit (Carver & Scheier, 1998; Higgins, 1987; Kluger & DeNisi, 1996; Locke
& Latham, 1990; Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960; Powers, 1973). According to cyber-
netic models, then, social agents would be more effective if they emphasize negative
feedback.
In this article, we argue against a universal answer to the relative impact of positive
and negative feedback. Instead, we suggest that the motivational advantage of positive
and negative feedback comes into play under different sets of circumstances. We accord-
ingly explore when each type of feedback is more effective in motivating goal pursuit.
Dynamics of Self-Regulation: A Framework for Exploring the Impact of
Feedback
We base our analysis in research on the dynamics of self-regulation, which explores the
course of goal pursuit when individuals consider a sequence of several (at least two)
actions toward a goal (Fishbach & Dhar, 2005; Fishbach, Dhar, & Zhang, 2006; Fishbach
& Zhang, 2008; Koo & Fishbach, 2008; Zhang, Fishbach, & Dhar, 2007). For example,
people often choose whether to eat healthily for lunch and dinner or whether to recycle
paper and also save water. When people choose their actions with respect to other, com-
pleted or upcoming actions toward their goal, they can choose actions that reinforce the
previous ones by pursuing the same goal in a dynamic of highlighting (e.g., recycle paper
and save water) or they can choose actions that compensate for previous ones by pursuing
a different goal in a dynamic of balancing (e.g., recycle paper but waste water). When
people highlight, they are more likely attend to a goal if they have previously attended to
it. When they balance, people are more likely attend to a goal if they have not previously
attended to it.
Our research on the dynamics of self-regulation identifies when people highlight versus
balance, for example, when a person that has been working vigorously during the day will
also stay late at the office (highlight) and when will she go home early (balance). We find
that how people represent pursuing a goal determines the dynamic they follow. We specifi-
cally distinguish between two representations: expressing commitment toward a desirable state
and making progress toward this state. For example, a dieter who chooses to eat healthy
foods can view this choice as expressing goal commitment, including positive evaluation of
the dieting goal and high expectancy of success. Alternatively, the dieter can see the healthy
choice as indicating progress and partial attainment of the dieting goal. In a commitment
representation, people highlight because each action increases their sense of personal com-
mitment to the goal, including the perception that the goal is important and expectancy of
attainment is high (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1974; Lewin, Dembo, Festinger, & Sears, 1944;
Liberman & Fo
¨rster, 2008; Vroom, 1964). In contrast, in a progress representation, people
balance because each action appears to partially attain the goal. Therefore, when actions
signal a boost in commitment, attending to a goal encourages goal-congruent actions more
than failing to attend to the goal. However, when actions signal progress was made, not
attending to a goal encourages goal-congruent actions more than attending to it.
This analysis has implications for how people respond to positive and negative feedback.
First, positive feedback on successful actions can encourage the pursuit of goal-congruent
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actions when it signals an increase in commitment to the goal but decrease motivation
when it signals sufficient progress was made. For example, a math student who receives a
high test score and infers that she likes math will work harder as a result, whereas a class-
mate who receives similar positive feedback and infers sufficient progress will relax his
efforts and focus on spending time with her friends. Second, negative feedback on unsuc-
cessful actions can encourage the pursuit of goal congruent actions if it signals insufficient
progress has been made but decrease motivation when it signals a decrease in commitment
to the goal. For example, a math student who receives a bad test score and infers lack of
commitment will subsequently reduce her efforts, whereas her classmate, who infers insuf-
ficient progress from the negative feedback, will subsequently work harder.
Indeed, social organizations that promote certain behaviors provide positive feedback
when they wish to increase their members’ commitment, and they provide negative feed-
back when they wish to imbue their members with a sense of insufficient progress. For
example, Alcoholics Anonymous encourages recovered alcoholics to focus on positive
feedback from their past successes. The recovered alcoholics refer to each day of sobriety
as a signal for their commitment to stay sober today. In contrast, weight watchers encour-
age dieters to increase their exercise when they eat excessively. In this model, there are
points gained for exercising and deducted for eating, and negative feedback on one’s food
consumption should increase one’s motivation to exercise.
We conducted a series of studies to demonstrate that positive feedback is effective only
when it signals a boost in commitment, whereas negative feedback is effective only when
it signals a lack of goal progress (Fishbach et al., 2006). Our research identifies several
variables that determine the degree to which individuals interpret goal actions in terms of
expressing commitment or making progress (Fishbach, Zhang, & Koo, 2009). One of
these variables is attention to a superordinate goal as opposed to a specific action or sub-
goal (e.g., attending to one’s health goal versus attending to a specific workout). When
the superordinate goal is salient, it appears far from reach. Consequently, actions signal
commitment to a goal more than they can provide a sense of significant progress. How-
ever, if a person focuses on the action itself, the action signals goal progress and even ful-
fillment. Accordingly, we predicted that positive feedback would increase a person’s
motivation to pursue another, congruent action when the superordinate goal is salient
but decrease that person’s motivation otherwise.
In one study, we (Fishbach et al., 2006) provided gym users feedback on their workout
before testing whether they would choose to follow their workout with another health-
promoting activity, healthy eating. In order to increase the accessibility of the superordi-
nate health goals, we asked participants to complete an experimental survey attached to
either a ‘health and fitness’ hardcover book or a phone directory (control condition).
Both books served as clipboards but were clearly visible. To manipulate the feedback on
workouts, we had participants evaluate their own workouts while presumably uninten-
tionally seeing a fictitious participant’s response to this question. The fictitious participant
listed either a small (1 hr) or a large (10 hr) amount of exercising time per week, which
made participants believe their own workout (of about 5 hr per week) was sufficient or
insufficient by comparison. We found that when the superordinate health goal was salient
(the ‘health and fitness’ clipboard), those who received positive feedback that they exer-
cised more than our fictitious participant expressed greater interest to eat healthily than
those who learned they exercised insufficiently. This is because the feedback on the
exercise influenced commitment to the health goal. However, in the absence of the
superordinate goal prime, those who received positive feedback on their exercise
program expressed lower interest to eat healthily than those who learned they exercised
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insufficiently, because the feedback signaled the level of goal progress (see Figure 1). On
the basis of this and similar studies, we can conclude that when actions signal commit-
ment, positive feedback increases motivation more than negative feedback. However,
negative feedback increases motivation more than positive feedback when actions signal
progress.
Shifting from Positive to Negative Feedback
We propose that whether people wish to evaluate their commitment or pace of pursuing
a goal influences whether positive or negative feedback is more effective. Our theory
further predicts that the question people ask themselves (‘am I committed?’ versus ‘am I
making sufficient progress?’) shifts over the course of pursuing a goal. People often start
by evaluating commitment and then shift to monitoring progress as they gain experience
or expertise in a goal domain. They make this shift because novices feel uncertain about
their level of commitment, whereas experts are already committed and wish to monitor
their rate of progress. One consequence of this shift is that novices should increase their
efforts in response to positive feedback on their successes, and experts should increase
their efforts in response to negative feedback on their lack of successes.
An initial demonstration of the shift from positive to negative feedback comes from
research by Louro, Pieters, and Zeelenberg (2007). These researchers followed people
over the course of pursuing a goal (e.g., weight loss). They found that beginners
increased their efforts in response to success (versus failure) feedback, but as they
advanced toward their goal, they tended to increase their efforts in response to failure
(versus success) feedback. In our research, we documented similar shifts from positive to
negative feedback when individuals work together toward a group goal and receive feed-
back on the performance of their group as one unit. In one study, we (Koo & Fishbach,
2008) looked at contributions individuals made to a charitable organization (‘Compassion
Korea’). We compared those of individuals who contributed regularly to the organization
(‘hot list’ – experienced) with those of individuals who expressed interest in the organiza-
tion but had not donated yet (‘cold list’ – novices). We manipulated feedback on the suc-
cess of the campaign by sending a solicitation letter that either emphasized that half of
the money had already been raised through various channels (successful fundraising) or
that half of the money was still missing to meet the campaign goal (unsuccessful fund-
4
4.5
5
5.5
6
High accessibility Low accessibility
Interest in healthy eating
Superordinate health goal
Feedback: exercised more than others
Feedback: exercised less than others
Figure 1 Interest in eating healthily as a function of superordinate health-goal accessibility and feedback type.
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raising). Although the objective accomplishment level was identical across conditions (half
of the money was donated), depending on the experience of the donors (experienced
donors versus novices), the differential emphasis on successful versus unsuccessful fundrais-
ing influenced contributions. Specifically, novices who received information on existing
contributions donated in greater proportions than novices who received information on
missing contributions. The opposite pattern emerged among regular (experienced)
donors, who donated in greater proportions if they received information on missing,
compared with existing, contributions.
Other studies tested whether a similar shift toward negative feedback characterizes
feedback seeking, such that as people gain expertise, they seek more negative feedback
and less positive feedback on their performance in order to motivate themselves (Finkel-
stein & Fishbach, 2009). In one study, we compared feedback seeking among American
students enrolled in advanced and beginner French classes. Students in both classes indi-
cated their interest in taking class with an instructor that emphasizes what they do well
(positive feedback) and one that emphasizes how they can improve (negative feedback).
We found that students enrolled in the beginner class were more interested than
advanced students in taking the class from an instructor who emphasizes positive feed-
back. The advanced students, in contrast, were more interested than beginner students in
taking the class from an instructor that emphasizes negative feedback.
In a follow-up study (Finkelstein & Fishbach, 2009), participants (all American) learned
a new task: typing in German. They completed six typing trials, comprised of a medium-
length paragraph, and could choose between receiving feedback either on their mistakes
or on their correct responses after each typing session. Consistent with our previous find-
ings, a larger proportion of participants sought negative (versus positive) feedback as they
advanced through the trials and thus, gained expertise (see Figure 2).
In addition to receiving feedback, individuals often give feedback to others. In another
study, we (Finkelstein & Fishbach, 2009) examined the feedback individuals give to a
team member as a function of his assumed expertise. Participants watched a recorded
practice presentation of an assumed team member. Their task was to help that person
prepare for an important presentation by providing positive and negative feedback on his
practice presentation. We manipulated the perceived expertise of the presenter by inform-
ing evaluators that this team member was either new to the team (2 months in) or not
(2 years in). We found that evaluators provided more negative feedback (but not less
positive feedback) when they believed their team member was experienced (versus a nov-
ice). Importantly, evaluators who thought the presenter was experienced (versus a novice)
did not rate the quality of the presentation as lower, yet they were harsher in their feed-
back.
Feedback Shifting within Relationship Goals
People often seek and receive feedback in close relationships. For example, friends, family
members, and romantic partners often criticize and praise each other. Their feedback can
refer to the receivers’ performance on achievement goals as well as to their performance
as relationship partners, that is, how much they invest resources in pursuing the relation-
ship goal. Our previous analysis suggests the status of the relationship as new versus long
standing may influence the valence of the feedback being exchanged. Specifically, we
assume that new relationship partners wish to evaluate the strength of their commitment.
It follows that negative feedback will undermine commitment for new relationship
partners, thereby reducing their motivation to pursue the relationship. However, as the
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relationship deepens, relationship partners could become more secure in their level of
commitment to the relationship and less concerned with the potential detrimental impact
of exchanging negative feedback (i.e., their relationship depth acts as a buffer; Linville,
1987; Showers & Kling, 1996; Trope & Neter, 1994). We further assume that in addition
to a lower concern with relationship commitment, partners in a long-standing relation-
ship wish to monitor the progress of their relationship. They should therefore be respon-
sive to negative feedback not only because they can tolerate it but also because they
find it more motivating than positive feedback. Specifically, we predict that relationship
partners give each other more negative feedback, seek more negative feedback, and
respond more to negative feedback by increasing their efforts, the deeper they perceive
their relationship to be.
In a study that tested for a shift in feedback among relationship partners, we examined
how individuals respond to positive and negative feedback from a friend (Fishbach & Fin-
kelstein, 2009). We first manipulated participants’ perceived depth of their relationship
with a nonromantic friend (new versus long standing) by having them answer questions
on their relationship on one out of two sets of scales. For example, participants in the
perceived new-relationship condition listed how long they had been friends with the per-
son on a wide scale (1 = less than 20 years; 2 = 20–25 years; 3 = more than 25 years),
whereas those in the perceived long-standing-relationship condition answered how long
they had been friends with the person on a narrow scale (1 = less than 2 years; 2 = 2–
5 years; 3 = more than 5 years). We found that those who felt their relationship was long
standing were more interested in connecting with a friend who gave them negative feed-
back than those who felt their relationship was new.
A follow-up study (Fishbach & Finkelstein, 2009) revealed that those who thought
their relationship was new inferred their level of interpersonal commitment from the
feedback they received, whereas those who thought their relationship was long standing
inferred their level of resource investment (i.e., progress) from the feedback they
received. We can thus conclude that regulation of relationship goals follows a pattern
similar to other goals: those in new relationships wish to evaluate their level of commit-
ment and respond to positive feedback while those in long-standing relationships who
know the relationship is well established monitor their resource investment and respond
more to negative feedback.
Another study documented a similar shift in the feedback friends give each other. In
this study, we (Fishbach & Finkelstein, 2009) again had participants list a nonromantic
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80
90
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Choice of negative feedback (%)
Progess on task (session #)
Figure 2 Percent of participants seeking negative feedback on their mistakes on the German typing task as a
function of session number.
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relationship partner and then answer a set of questions that made them feel either the
relationship was new or long standing. To assess feedback giving, participants then wrote
a toast for their friend for an upcoming event, such as a birthday party, in which they
could express both their appreciation and criticism of their friend. For example, one per-
son wrote ‘her honesty and integrity is beyond compare and her wisdom is sought by
many’ (positive feedback), whereas another person wrote ‘we’ve been through thick (HA
HA look at our dress size) and thin’ (negative feedback). Supporting our analysis, those
who perceived their relationship as long standing were more likely to include negative
feedback compared with those who perceived their relationship as new.
Using a similar manipulation, we (Fishbach & Finkelstein, 2009) further tested for
feedback seeking among friends. In this study, participants chose between receiving posi-
tive feedback about what they do well (their strengths) or negative feedback regarding
how they could improve (their weaknesses). We found that those who perceived their
relationship was long standing were more likely to seek negative feedback from their
friend compared with those who perceived their relationship was new.
Taken together, these studies support our assumption that self-regulation relies more
heavily on negative feedback (and balancing) as people gain experience in a goal domain.
We attribute this pattern to the shift in individuals’ concern as they progress on a goal –
from evaluating their level of commitment to assessing their level of progress. Interest-
ingly, in pursuing relationship goals, the increase in frequency of negative feedback can
potentially have an ironic effect of shortening those long-standing relationships or at least
making them less pleasant over time. This downside of long-standing relationships might
happen despite the fact that the perception of relationship depth, rather than actual depth,
often promotes negative feedback seeking, giving, and responding to negative feedback.
Mood Underlies the Impact of Feedback
The feedback individuals receive has affective consequences: It makes people feel good or
bad. We propose that these affective consequences are a critical outcome of feedback,
which enables behavioral change in response to feedback. Thus, the affective response is
not a side effect or an epiphenomenon of the feedback, but rather the underlying mecha-
nism by which feedback influences behavior (Baumeister, Vohs, DeWall, & Zhang,
2007). Eliminating the feelings feedback evokes or altering the meaning of those feelings
would modify the impact of feedback. For example, we assume receiving a good grade
encourages a student to study further only if she feels good and infers that she is therefore
more committed to studying. Similarly, teasing a dieter about his failed weight-loss
attempts would only encourage him to try harder if he feels bad and attributes the feel-
ings to his insufficient progress. Absence of feelings or their interpretation, feedback
should not increase academic or dieting efforts.
Specifically, when a person’s mood appears to be the outcome of progress feedback,
we predict that positive mood signals sufficient progress and negative mood signals insuf-
ficient progress (as discrepancy models attest, e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1998; Higgins,
1987). Then, experiencing positive mood would impede goal pursuit and experiencing
negative mood would motivate it. However, mood can also signal one’s level of commit-
ment, for example, when a person infers high ability after receiving positive feedback.
Moreover, mood that appears unrelated to feedback can impact commitment by signaling
to a person whether to adopt an accessible goal. In general, positive mood increases the
tendency to adopt an accessible goal and negative mood decreases adoption of accessible
goals (Clore et al., 2001; Fishbach & Labroo, 2007; Trope, Igou, & Burke, 2006). When
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mood signals that one should commit to or adopt a goal, we predict that positive mood
will motivate goal pursuit and negative mood will impede goal pursuit.
To demonstrate that mood underlies the impact of feedback, we relied on mood attri-
bution research. People often do not recognize the true source of their mood, as mood
attribution is an inferential process (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2005; Schwarz & Clore,
1983). Our analysis predicts that after receiving performance feedback, falsely attributing
one’s mood to another source will alter the behavioral consequences of the feedback that
elicited the mood. Specifically, if people attribute their mood to a source unrelated to the
performance feedback, experiencing positive mood would signal them to adopt the goal
state more than a negative mood would, and thus increase goal commitment rather than
signal sufficient progress. This way, a positive mood that results from progress feedback
can end up increasing goal pursuit but misattributed to a source unrelated to performance.
Similarly, a positive mood that results from a source unrelated to one’s progress can
decrease goal adherence if a person misattributes the mood to the progress on the goal.
To demonstrate these effects, we (Eyal, Fishbach, & Labroo, 2009) conducted a series
of studies in which we manipulated participants’ positive versus negative moods and the
mood attribution to progress on a goal versus an unrelated source, before assessing partici-
pants’ motivation to pursue the relevant goal. In some of the studies, the original source
of the mood was performance feedback on the goal (progress related), whereas in other
studies, it was unrelated to performance. We wanted to demonstrate that regardless of the
true source of one’s mood, the attribution of mood determines its motivational conse-
quences. Using this procedure of manipulating the signal in mood, we could demonstrate
experimentally that mood underlies the impact of feedback.
In one study (Eyal et al., 2009), participants received high- or low-success feedback
about their performance on a verbal ability task that induced corresponding positive or
negative mood. We informed participants in the misattribution condition that background
music (‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ by Bach) played during the task might have influenced
their mood, whereas the rest of the participants learned that the music had no impact on
their performance. All participants then completed a second typing task that presumably
measured a similar verbal ability. We found that in itself, success (versus failure) feedback
induced participants to lower their efforts (i.e., type more slowly) on the second test – a
pattern consistent with progress inferences. However, among participants who believed
their mood resulted from the music, those who received success feedback typed faster
than those who received failure feedback – a pattern consistent with greater commitment
to improve one’s verbal ability (see Figure 3).
By misattributing feedback-related mood to an unrelated source, we were able to
reverse the impact of feedback on subsequent performance. In another study (Eyal et al.,
2009), we manipulated the attribution of mood that originated from a source unrelated
to the task to feedback versus not. Participants in the study completed a word association
task that was presented as a creativity task. This task induced a positive versus negative
mood outside of conscious awareness. Specifically, participants listed associations for a list
of positively valence words (e.g., ‘beautiful’) versus negatively valence words (e.g., ‘ugly;’
see Isen, Johnson, Mertz, & Robinson, 1985). Those in the misattribution condition next
learned that how people feel after completing the word association task is usually indica-
tive of their level of performance, whereas the rest of the participants did not receive this
information. As a result, among those in the misattribution condition, those who felt
good assumed they performed better (i.e., were more creative) than those who felt bad.
We then measured participants’ performance on another anagram task that presumably
measured a similar ability. We found that among those unaware of the source of their
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feelings, positive mood improved performance on the anagram task (as indicated by num-
ber of solutions) compared with negative mood – a pattern consistent with commitment
inference. In contrast, participants who misattributed their mood to performance per-
formed better in a negative than a positive mood – a pattern consistent with inferences of
insufficient progress (see Figure 4).
Our findings that feedback effects depend on people’s interpretations of their affective
experiences have implications for existing theory on mood attribution. Consistent with
our findings, research on stop-rules finds that positive mood reduces goal adherence
when people wish to evaluate whether they have done enough (‘stop when you have
done enough’). In addition, research on stop rules finds that positive mood increases goal
adherence when people wish to evaluate their level of task enjoyment (‘stop when you
no longer enjoy the task’), because for ambiguously enjoyable tasks, positive mood is a
signal for enjoyment and thus increases commitment (Hirt, Melton, McDonald, & Hara-
ckiewicz, 1996; Martin, Ward, Achee, & Wyer, 1993). But whereas research on stop
rules addresses pursuit of goals that are ambiguously enjoyable and intrinsically motivating
(Ryan & Deci, 2000), we find that even for unpleasant tasks, mood can improve perfor-
mance. In the latter case, when people attribute their mood to a task unrelated source
(e.g., background music), experiencing positive mood will increase their tendency to
commit to an unpleasant task that pursues an important goal. In addition, our research
has implications for modifying theory on mood-as-information (Schwarz & Clore, 1983):
We suggest that mood that is attributed to a goal-unrelated source nonetheless influences
self-regulation to the extent that it increases the tendency to adopt – and therefore com-
mit to – accessible goals.
The Feedback in Specific Emotions
Similar to general positive and negative moods, specific emotions underlie the impact of
feedback on self-regulation. These specific emotions provide feedback on a person’s per-
formance on distinct goal contents (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Higgins, 1987; Neumann,
Fo
¨rster, & Strack, 2003; Nicholls, 1984; Van Yperen, 2003). For example, goals vary by
their focus on promotion versus prevention needs (Higgins, 1987), and different emotions
mark the attainment of promotion goals (e.g., joy and satisfaction) and prevention goals
(e.g., relief and quiescence; Higgins, Shah, & Friedman, 1997). In another domain,
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90
100
110
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130
Attribution to feedback Misattribution to external
source
Success feedback
Failure feedback
Time for task completion (sec)
Figure 3 Overall time of completing a typing task as a function of whether participants received success or failure
feedback on a previous task and whether they attributed their resulting mood to the feedback (correct attribution)
or to the background music (misattribution to external source).Note: Lower numbers indicate better performance.
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achievement goals vary by their focus on mastery versus performance: success on mastery
goals results in increased enjoyment and decreased boredom and anger, whereas success
on performance goals results in increased hope and pride and decreased shame and anxi-
ety (Pekrun, Elliot, & Maier, 2006). Importantly, whereas general moods signal either the
level of commitment to or progress on a goal, because specific emotions arise in response
to performance on specific goal contents, emotions provide feedback on the level of goal
progress individuals achieved(Lazarus, 1991; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). For example,
pride signals to the individual that an important goal was achieved and anger signals that
an obstacle is blocking goal pursuit.
In our research, we (Eyal & Fishbach, 2009) draw a distinction between abstract and
concrete emotions. We suggest that abstract emotions provide feedback on pursuit of
long-term goals, whereas concrete emotions provide feedback on pursuit of short-term
goals (see also Liberman, Trope, & Stephan, 2007). We define abstract emotions as those
that entail a comparison of one’s current situation with a remote alternative that is socially
and physically distant, hypothetical, or temporally distant (e.g., hope, pride, guilt,and
regret). For example, pride involves comparing the self with distant social expectations
and norms, and regret involves comparing hypothetical alternatives with reality (Frijda,
Kuipers, & ter Schure, 1989; Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 1989). We further define concrete
emotions as those that involve a comparison of one’s current situations with temporally
near, socially near, spatially near, or relatively certain alternatives (e.g., happiness, joy, sad-
ness, and fear). For example, fear is a response to an immediately threatening situation,
sadness involves evaluating an immediate loss, and happiness involves evaluating an
immediate gain (Lazarus, 1991). This distinction partially overlaps with the distinction
between self-conscious or complex emotions and basic or hedonic emotions (Beer &
Keltner, 2004; Giner-Sorolla, 2001; Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 1989; Ortony & Turner,
1990; Tangney & Fischer, 1995; Tracy & Robins, 2004), although we define emotions
by their degree of abstraction, whereas similar conceptualizations defined emotions by the
goals they monitor.
We predict that abstract emotions provide feedback on pursuit of long-term goals that
offer delayed benefits and concrete emotions provide feedback on pursuit of short-term
goals that provide immediate benefits. For example, athletes may feel pride after winning
a medal and happiness when getting a rest break from their exercise regime. In studies
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
Unaware of mood source Misattribution to performance
Positive mo od
Negative mood
Correct solutions
Figure 4 Performance on an anagram task (number of correct solutions) as a function of whether participants
were in a positive or negative mood and whether they remained unaware of the mood source or misattributed
their mood to performance on a previous task.
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Journal Compilation ª2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
that explored the feedback emotions convey, we accordingly found that abstract emotions
(e.g., pride) signaled progress on goals such as career achievement, and concrete emotions
(e.g., happiness) signaled progress on goals such as leisure. Similarly, negative abstract
emotions (e.g., guilt) signaled a lack of progress on a long-term goal and negative con-
crete emotions (e.g., sadness) signaled a lack of progress on a short-term goal.
We further found that abstract versus concrete emotions vary by their duration, such
that concrete emotions are experienced for a shorter period of time than abstract emo-
tions. In a study to test this prediction (Eyal & Fishbach, 2009), health-conscious partici-
pants chose to consume either one of several unhealthy snacks or one of several healthy
snacks (chocolates versus apples). They reported the intensity of their feelings immediately
after eating the snack and after a delay (20 min). We found that participants reported feel-
ing more intense happiness immediately after eating the chocolate (versus apple) and
more intense pride immediately after eating an apple (versus chocolate). However,
whereas feelings of happiness quickly decayed, the feelings of pride persisted for some
time.
In addition to the feedback that emotional experiences provide, even before there is an
actual emotional experience, accessible emotion-related terms can signal that one should
pursue goals that will result in that experience. For example, we found that presenting
words related to happiness versus pride in an unrelated lexical task increased consumption
of unhealthy chocolate among health-conscious individuals and decreased persistence on a
difficult academic task among undergraduate students (Eyal & Fishbach, 2009).
Overall, both general moods and specific emotions are the underlying mechanism by
which feedback impacts motivation. Moods signal the level of goal progress or provide
information on the level of goal commitment. In contrast, emotions provide feedback
about one’s progress on specific goal contents. Thus, emotional terms promote pursuit of
the goals that will result in experiencing positive emotions or not experiencing negative
emotions.
Summary and Conclusions
We reviewed research attesting that the impact of positive and negative feedback depends
on the signal the feedback conveys: whether it informs individuals of their level of com-
mitment to or progress on a goal. We demonstrate that the signal in feedback is a func-
tion of individuals’ level of expertise with a goal. Novices are concerned with evaluating
their commitment and they are more likely to adhere to a goal after receiving positive
(versus negative) feedback, in a dynamic of highlighting. In contrast, experts are con-
cerned with monitoring their progress toward the goal and they are more likely to adhere
to a goal after receiving negative (versus positive) feedback, in a dynamic of balancing. As
we documented, similar shifts from positive to negative feedback characterize the feed-
back individuals seek from and give to others on their goal pursuits.
We further argued that feedback operates through the affective experience it produces,
including general moods and specific emotions. When people attribute their mood to the
feedback they received, the mood provides progress information and people are more
likely to adhere to their goals when they are in a bad mood. However, when people
attribute their mood to a goal-unrelated source, the mood signals to them whether to
commit to a goal. In addition to general moods, distinct emotions signal the level of
attainment on specific goals, such that people infer from their emotional experience (e.g.,
pride versus happiness) which of their simultaneous goals (e.g., long- versus short-term)
they neglected or toward which they made sufficient progress.
Feedback Motivates Goal Pursuit 527
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Journal Compilation ª2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
We assume that feedback’s main function is motivating goal pursuit and a remaining
question is whether people seek feedback strategically to motivate themselves. For exam-
ple, novices could seek positive feedback and experts could seek negative feedback in
order to overcome upcoming obstacles in pursuing their goals. Thus, for example, when
anticipating a problem in a timely meeting of a deadline at work, the novice will likely
seek positive feedback that affirms her perception that she can meet the deadline, whereas
the expert will likely seek negative feedback that will help him stay on track and over-
come further distractions. In addition, individuals can possibly motivate themselves to
adhere to their goals through mood regulation. In particular, they can strategically make
themselves feel bad about their level of progress on a goal or, to elicit a general positive
mood, they can focus on the positive things in their life. Self-regulators can also alter
their attributions in a strategic way; for example, a person in a negative mood can attri-
bute the mood to a lack of goal progress, whereas the person in a positive mood can
attribute it to a source unrelated to the goal. Furthermore, people can focus their atten-
tion on emotions that promote pursuit of long-term goals (e.g., anticipated pride, experi-
enced shame) rather than on emotions that promote short-term pursuits (e.g., anticipated
happiness, experienced sadness) to promote self-control success. All these processes would
motivate individuals to adhere to their goals.
Finally, social agents such as educators or managers can give feedback strategically to
increase recipients’ motivation to adhere to their goals. For example, they can encourage
goal pursuit by offering positive feedback to novices and increasing the negative feedback
they provide as their recipients gain expertise. In addition, feedback providers can
encourage attributions of mood that increase motivation and avoid attributions that
undermine motivation. For example, social agents can encourage individuals to attribute
negative moods to the lack of goal progress (e.g., incomplete coursework) and to attri-
bute positive moods to a source unrelated to goal performance (e.g., the weather). Natu-
rally, such strategic use of feedback is only possible if people’s intuition partially
correspond to the trends we identified in our research, for example, if they can intuit that
experts benefit more from negative feedback than novices. Exploring situations in which
people can intuit the impact of feedback and make strategic use of it is an important
focus for future goal research.
Short Biographies
Ayelet Fishbach is Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at Booth School of
Business, University of Chicago. She earned her degrees in psychology from Tel Aviv
University in Israel. Her work is the field of motivation, in particular, the pursuit of mul-
tiple goals and the processes of self control. She has published her work in many journals,
including the Journal of Consumer Research,Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,Jour-
nal of Experimental Social Psychology,Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and Psycholo-
gical Science.
Tal Eyal is a Lecturer in Social Psychology, Ben Gurion University, Israel. She earned
her degrees in psychology from Tel Aviv University in Israel. Her work focuses on the
interface between motivation and emotion as well as on influences of psychological dis-
tance on judgment. She has published her work in many journals, including Journal of
Experimental Social Psychology,Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and Psychological
Science.
Stacey Finkelstein is a doctoral candidate in Managerial and Organizational Behavior at
the Booth School of Business, University of Chicago. Her work is in the field of motiva-
528 Feedback Motivates Goal Pursuit
ª2010 The Authors Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4/8 (2010): 517–530, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00285.x
Journal Compilation ª2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
tion, in particular, exploring the processes of self-regulation. She has published work in
the Journal of Consumer Research and Psychological Science.
Endnote
* Correspondence address: Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, 5807 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago,
IL 60637, USA. Email: ayelet.fishbach@chicagobooth.edu
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... It enhances the individual's performance as well as their motivation to achieve the desired outcome [10,11]. In contrast, negative feedback undermines an individual's belief in their ability and reduces their expectations of success [12]. Other perspectives, however, argue that negative feedback is more effective than positive feedback because negative feedback signals to the individual that their goal has not yet been achieved, which may boost goal congruent behaviours [12][13][14]. ...
... In contrast, negative feedback undermines an individual's belief in their ability and reduces their expectations of success [12]. Other perspectives, however, argue that negative feedback is more effective than positive feedback because negative feedback signals to the individual that their goal has not yet been achieved, which may boost goal congruent behaviours [12][13][14]. Positive feedback, in contrast, will signal that the goal has, or at least has partly, been attained. Therefore, in contrast to positive feedback being effective when it signals commitment, negative feedback is effective when it signals a lack of progress [15]. ...
... This study, however, did not explore competitiveness nor the application of VR. Participants lower in competitiveness may have felt more competent due to the positive praise and encouragement delivered during cycling whereas negative feedback may have undermined motivation signalling their effort was not adequate [10][11][12]. As perceived competence for an exercise task has been found to result in longer times spent exercising and increased adherence to an exercise program [53], it is suggested that positive feedback delivered to individuals who are low in trait competitiveness during VR exercise could result in the achievement of exercise benefits through increased motivation and exercise participation. ...
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