Motivational Posters : do they actually work?

Motivational and inspirational quotes and images seem to saturate every facet of our daily lives. Given how widespread they’ve become, it would be fair to assume they actually work. However, the science behind it suggests otherwise. I recently went to the gym for the first time in months, because my inability to climb the two flights of stairs to my office without needing to be defibrillated was becoming annoying.

It was while desperately grappling some infernal contraption like I’d just fallen into the workings of Big Ben that I contemplated abandoning this whole “exercise” charade. But then I glanced at the wall and saw an image of a mountaintop, a stunning natural vista, underneath which was written something akin to “It takes effort to be all you can be”. I suddenly realised that, if I stuck at it and worked my hardest, I could be a mountain one day.

A mountain is a very large rise in the land, over 610 metres in height, and formed by the action of tectonic forces. Being such a thing would be incredibly inconvenient for me, so I stopped exercising and left the gym forever.

That last part isn’t true; I’m not really worried about becoming a landmass. There was a poster though, but I don’t really remember what it said, because it was just one of dozens I see every day that are intended to motivate, inspire or reassure me. When something is so commonplace, it can quickly fade to the level of well-intentioned white noise.

Every Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest etc, every trendy office, every advert, every magazine, every form of public communication seems compelled to include as many motivational images and messages as possible. But do these have any effect on people? Or are they just one step up from wallpaper?

Obviously it’s impossible to know for certain. There hasn’t been any reliable research that has asked people whether their motivation and later-life success was due to a well-placed poster (how would you even go about confirming such a thing even if it was the case?), but we can theorise as to how they could work.

If we consider these posters as “motivational”, as opposed to “inspirational” (there is a lot of overlap but the former has more research about it and this is supposedly a science blog, as my editors keep reminding me), to look at whether something could be classed as motivational, it’s important to clarify what this actually means. What is motivation?

Broadly, motivation can be described as the sum of factors (either internal or external) that create drive or provide the “energy” required for a person to remain interested and/or working toward a project, goal, outcome etc.

The internal and external emphasis is an interesting one. People can be motivated by intrinsic factors (e.g. studying hard for your exams because you really want to be a doctor and are genuinely interested in medicine) or extrinsic factors (e.g. studying hard for your exams because it will please your parents and help ensure that someone pays you well for your work later in life).

There’s a great deal more to motivation than this brief description, but let’s focus on the original question: do these motivational posters actually work?

The actual mechanism by which they could work is almost certainly intrinsic; there is no obvious external reward offered by looking at a poster. Higgins in 1987 came up with the self-discrepancy theory to explain people’s motivation. This argues that people have three types of self: the “ideal” self, which is what we hope to become; the “ought” self, which is how we think we should behave to achieve the ideal self; and the actual self, which is the extent to which we actually possess these desired attributes.

The “ideal” self encourages us to do things that take our actual self closer to that state (eg dressing smarter at work to seem more professional), the “ought” self stops us doing things that lead our actual self away from it (eg avoiding fatty foods because we want to be fitter). In either case, it usually takes effort and motivation, so could a well-placed reminder that our efforts aren’t necessarily futile provide the necessary impetus we need? A well-phrased quote emphasising the things a person can achieve could boost our ideal self, or one reassuring us that hard work is normal and necessary may shore up our ought self. This no doubt varies from person to person, it depends how seriously you take these things.

It’s easy to scoff at the corporate use of motivational posters like these. It often seems like a company trying to get more from employees without actually paying them any more money, but this is to overlook the importance of intrinsic motivation, as exemplified by the “overjustification effect”.

The overjustification effect suggests that if you reward people for something they already like doing, they’ll actually lose the motivation for doing it. This has led to the agency theory of motivation, where it is argued that autonomy is better than financial reward for motivating people, as a reward is an external factor, beyond their control and could be taken away at any time, whereas giving someone autonomy means they have control and responsibility so a sense of achievement, which could explain why micromanagement is so infuriating.

Others argue that this agency theory is something cooked up by amoral economists as a way of justifying not paying a workforce fairly. It’s easy to understand this position in modern times.

You can sort of see how a well-placed quote could provide a nugget of confidence or perspective just when needed, particularly if emphasised by pairing it with an emotive visually pleasing stimulus like a stunning vista. But it’s impossible to say where or when such a thing would be most helpful, so the only solution is to flood the environment with them wherever possible.

Except this is likely to undermine the impact of motivational posters, not increase it. Even the most vivid stimulus loses its force if experienced often and regularly enough. So even if a modern day person would benefit from a well-timed motivational message, they’ve likely learned to ignore it due to oversaturation (my own favourite example of this was finding a motivational message on a bag of Burger King fries).

But all is not lost for the motivational posters. Thanks to the invention of social networking, people can now make or share motivational images to their heart’s content. Doing this suggests that you are a wise, intelligent, thoughtful and considerate person. It’s fine if you want to share something that’s helped you at some point, but some seem to take it too far. It’s as if they want to be seen as more wise and considerate and in touch with their feelings than anyone, and thus share as many motivational images as possible, as often as possible. This must take a lot of effort, and so it seems that, in some cases, motivational posters do work after all. Although probably not in the way intended.

(This article was published on 20 November 2014 on Guardian online authored by Dean Burnett @garwboy)