Psychologists have begun to uncover how people are best motivated to reach a goal. We used this research in creating Stikky books

When people buy a book on how to identify constellations or how to fix a car, the writers can perhaps assume that the reader is motivated to put into practice what they learn. This motivation will carry the reader through the first hour or so of reading the book, though it may not stretch much further. (Our research found that people said they read, on average, just under half the last How To book they bought for themselves, one reason we made Stikky books readable in around one hour).

A bigger challenge to reader motivation comes after reading the book: putting what they learned into practice, particularly for 'self-improvement' topics such as losing weight.

We faced a particular problem with Stikky Weight Management since we wanted to avoid the idea of a temporary diet in favor of permanent changes to eating habits. From a motivational point-of-view, a time-limited diet may seem more attractive than a lifetime of eating less, even if the reader agrees that temporary changes typically deliver only temporary results.

So a significant part of research for the book was into motivational methods. The psychology literature (including the pop-psychology, self-help literature) identify three methods:

  • Focus on the outcome
  • Focus on the process of reaching the outcome
  • Focus on outcome and process together.

For example, a student preparing for an exam could spend a few minutes each day visualizing themselves going to get their result after the exam and getting an A (outcome). Alternatively, they could visualize themselves turning on their desk light, getting out a book to study, and sitting down to concentrate on it (process). Or they could visualize both in turn. Which approach, if any, is most likely to improve their performance?

A recent study set out to uncover the answer but, before we reveal it, you might like to consider for yourself which approach was best, second best, and third best.

A team at UCLA divided students into groups one week before a mid-term exam, one group taking the outcome approach, another the process approach, a third group process-and-outcome, and a fourth group as control (Taylor and Pham, 1996).

They found that the process-and-outcome group did best, a net gain of 10 points, followed by the process group with a net gain of 8 points. The outcome-focussed group scored a net gain of 2 points--not statistically significant. Interestingly, the process-and-outcome group said they would be unlikely to use the method again (perhaps because it took too long) whereas the process group said they would be highly likely to.

That outcome-focus didn't work is particularly surprising given the almost exclusive use of this approach in popular self-help literature. But the UCLA findings confirm those of an earlier study (Gollwitzer et al, 1990) which found that people who form definite implementation plans ("these are the five steps I am going to take") are significantly more likely to follow through than those who don't. Whether they imagined the positive consequences of achieving the outcome or not made no difference.

What did this tell us about motivating readers of Stikky Weight Management? It told us to have readers focus on the process of making the changes they choose to make. Since Stikky books are in three parts and readers are asked to leave one week gaps between them, we effectively had two opportunities to ask the reader to make changes and then have them evaluate themselves a week later.

Process aspects we used were:

  • Substituting one food for another
  • Comparing Nutrition Fact labels in a store
  • Choosing from a restaurant menu
  • 'Tactics' such as stop eating when you're full
  • And taking light exercise when the opportunity arises (eg, park at the far end of the parking lot and walk).

We also included some outcome-based arguments, primarily because they are so compelling that it would have been bizarre to leave them out. But they are not tested or re-enforced later in the book whereas all the process items above are.

We chose not to ask readers to imagine themselves as thin and we chose not to make a diet sound like a one-off project with a single outcome. Unlike most diet books we also chose not to include recipes (which made sense in the 1960s when most meals were cooked at home); and not to talk in detail about human biology.

Did it work for you? Let us know by email at

Links to more articles for educators and learning theorists here.



P M Gollwitzer, H Heckhausen, and H Ratajczak (1990), 'From weighing to willing: Approaching a change decision through pre- or postdecisional mentation', Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 45, 41-65

S E Taylor and L B Pham, 'Mental Stimulation, Motivation, and Action' in Peter M Gollwitzer and John A Bargh, The Psychology of Action, The Guilford Press.