SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
We are all inspired by individuals who can do the most amazing things when most of us would just give up and go home. Expressions like ‘running on empty’ or ‘going the extra mile’ come to mind. Role models are important to us because they have the power to push us further, to energize us to set new personal records. New research, however, suggests that this may not always be the case…
Take down that motivational poster — it may make you give up sooner.
Why inspirational tales makes us feel worse about ourselves.
by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.
Gerard Van Velde
, a retired Dutch speedskater, had returned to the ice for one final Olympics. Despite being one of the faster skaters in the world, he had failed to medal at both the 1992 and 1994 Olympics. In 1998, he gave up and quit competitive skating to become a used car salesman. And yet here he was at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, getting ready to compete against two-time Olympic medalist Russian skater Sergey Klevchenya in the 1000-meter race.
Not only did he beat Klevchenya, but he also broke the world record by half a second and took home the gold. “I kept telling myself: don’t give up, don’t quit,”
Van Velde recounted of the race. “I have learnt that I can do much more than I thought.”
This story usually makes people smile-everyone loves a tale of triumph. But is it possible to catch a bit of Van Velde’s determination just from hearing about it? Many of us have willpower role models, people we admire for their willingness to keep going when things get difficult. When I ask my students about their willpower heroes, they usually mention famous athletes, successful leaders, and religious figures like Mother Theresa and the Dalia Lama. We hold them up as inspirations and hope that a little bit of their strength and courage will rub off on us. But can we count on them?
The answer is, it depends.
Researchers at the Maastricht University
in the Netherlands have found that such inspirational tales-including the Van Velde victory-only strengthen perseverance when you are exhausted and ready to give up
. Inspirational stories helped exhausted participants find renewed strength on a challenging handgrip test, but had the opposite effect on people who had not previously exerted themselves-it made them physically weaker, and they gave up sooner.
The question is, why did the same story have such different effects, depending on whether people were tired?
According to the researchers’ theory, it has to do with the human tendency to compare ourselves to others. Under ordinary circumstances, we hear about a hero like Van Velde, compare ourselves to his perseverance, and find ourselves lacking. “This guy is an Olympic Gold medalist,” we think to ourselves, “and I’m some ordinary Joe who plays fantasy baseball and Xbox.” The researchers speculate that these tales makes us feel worse about ourselves, leaving us weaker and less motivated.
However, the researchers speculate that when we’re tired and running low on willpower, our minds forget to compare ourselves, and simply we relate to the Van Velde who was struggling. We don’t say, “I’ll never be like him.” We already see ourselves as like him, because we know what it’s like to want to give up. We see our exhausted selves in Van Velde’s struggle, and his stamina allows us to imagine ourselves preserving.
What are we to make of this paradox? For starters, you might want to rethink the motivational décor in your office (or at least cover up that motivational poster of Lance Armstrong until you’re in need of a willpower boost). But it also reminds us of the importance of finding role models closer to home. We may not get as much strength as we think from the people we put on pedestals. The more we admire them, the further they seem from ourselves.
For everyday inspiration before we hit rock bottom, we may need role models who seem more like us. If you’re looking for help keeping your New Year’s Resolution, you may want to look around your immediate social network – your friends, family, or co-workers – for a role model, and leave the self-control superheroes for when you really need them.
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist teaching at Stanford University. Her work focuses on the connections between stress, emotions, relationships, culture, and health. McGonigal is the editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, a peer-reviewed journal of research on yoga, meditation, and integrative medicine. She is the author of Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Pain.
My favourite motivational-BOWLING poster.(Though I don’t bowl!)
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS