Many times I have mentioned on this site that making progress in meaningful work is very motivating. Not only actual progress can motivate, so does perceived progress. That this perception can even be based on an illusion was demonstrated by an experiment conducted by Columbia University researchers Kivetz et al. (2006). Participants in this experiment were customers in a coffee shop at the Columbia University campus. In the experiment participants received a stamp card. For each cup of coffee they bought they received a stamp. After 10 stamps they had earned a free cup of coffee plus a baked good. There were two kinds of stamp cards (see below).
Although it looks as if on the right card there is already some progress because there are already two stamps, both cards are actually equivalent. In both cases the guests had to buy 10 consumptions in order to earn their free coffee plus baked good. But the researchers found that guest with the 12-stamp card bought coffee more often and completed their cards 20% faster than those with the 10-stamp card. This is an example of what psychologists call a framing effect. A framing effect happens when two equivalent representations of a situation, task, or problem lead to systematically different choices or assessments. The work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky describes numerous examples of framing effects. To learn more about this, buy Kahneman's interesting bestseller Thinking, fast and slow.
How are these findings useful? Of course, they may be used in marketing as was the case in the coffee shop. Personally, I'm not fond of such approaches. I understand that people in marketing and commerce must present their products, brands, and corporations in a positive manner. But there seems to be a fine line between an attractive presentation and pure manipulation or deception. I am an advocate of teaching people the rationality skills needed to see through these kinds of framing effects so that they become less vulnerable to them. I realize this is a complex discussion about which much more can be said than what I am saying here.
But I find the study by Kivetz and colleagues interesting in a different way. It makes me think about how we define the situations we are in when we have problems. Does our definition look more like the 10-stamp card or like the 12-stamp card? I other words, do we perceive our current position as a situation in which nothing has yet been accomplished? Or do we take the view that there is already a beginning of the success we are seeking? A beginning of success on which we can build. If we do the latter, I think our motivation will be stronger. The challenge, therefore, is to try to view our situation, however difficult it may seem, as a situation in which there is already a beginning of success. A situation in which some things are already working and in which some things have already been accomplished. A few techniques which may come in handy to take such a perspective are the scaling question and the circle technique.