On Challanges

by F.

Like many, I enjoy challenges. In fact, without them, life would be pretty dull. One thing you notice if you read much in the happiness literature is that the positive effects of what you might call “threats” isn’t talked about very often. This may because threats are generally bad–such as the stereotype threat that causes children to do worse (e.g., you tells young girls they’re genetically bad at math and their scores go down; you tell them they can be just as good as boys, and their scores go up).

But what about “good threats”? Are there any? A new paper by Johnson et. al suggests there are:

It sounds paradoxical, but people we find threatening and who make us feel bad about ourselves can have a positive effect on our performance. The key factor is whether or not their strengths match the challenge before us.

Dozens of students performed a verbal ability test after reading one of four versions of a passage about a prize-winning student called Hans. Hans was portrayed as either younger or older than the participants – the younger version was intended to be more demoralising (and pilot work confirmed a younger Hans was indeed perceived as more threatening). Secondly, Hans was said to have been awarded his prestigious prize either for his astonishing verbal ability, or for his analytical skills.

Among the students who read about an older Hans, it didn’t matter whether Hans had won his prize for logic or verbal skills – all performed equally well at their own verbal task.

The crucial finding concerned the students who read about a younger, more threatening Hans. Among these students, those who read that Hans was an analytical wizard tended to outperform not just those who read about a young verbally-adept Hans, but the students who read about an older Hans too. So although he was threatening, reading about a young Hans whose strengths didn’t match the verbal task acted as a spur rather than a hindrance. The message is that superior others can inspire us to try harder at tasks outside of their strengths.

This strategy, of course, risky, because too great a threat can cause us to give up. It’s a bit like having a demanding coach: you want him or her to push you, but not too much–otherwise you’ll collapse. As usual, the ideal is a Goldilocks Mean: not too this, not to that, but just right.

There’s a discussion of the paper here. The paper is Johnson, C.S. & Stapel, D.A. (2007). When different is better: Performance following upward comparison. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 258-275.