Task Perception (Serious vs. Fun) and Performance

When a task is described as being a serious test of skill or proficiency, high achievers perform significantly better on the task than low achievers (as one would predict).

When the same task is described as ‘fun’, however, the opposite is seen: low achievers outperform high achievers.

Obviously, how we perceive tasks (or describe them to others) can have a drastic influence on our performance.

When high achievers are primed to achieve excellence, the idea that a task is “fun” undercuts their desire to excel. If something is enjoyable and fun, how could it possibly be a credible gauge of achievement?

Conversely, low achievers who are similarly primed with achievement words perceive a “fun” task as worthwhile. Not only is their motivation to perform improved, so is their ability.

This intriguing twist says much about why one-size-fits-all educational strategies so often fail. For students motivated to achieve excellence, making tasks entertaining may actually undermine their performance. Likewise, for those not normally motivated to achieve, describing a task as urgent and serious yields the predictable result.

It also sheds light on the “lazy genius” phenomenon. Everyone has known someone who is remarkably intelligent but gets mediocre grades and doesn’t seem to care. Clearly, low-achievers are not necessarily less intelligent or less capable than high-achievers; instead, they just don’t respond well to status quo motivational cues. A jolt of enjoyment could turn that around.

via Ryan Sager