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Streaks can be a powerful tool for motivation

Have you ever felt a pang of guilt for skipping a workout because you didn’t want to break your fitness app streak? New research reveals the surprising psychology behind streaks, and why they can be help or hurt motivation at the same time.

Impact of maintaining a streak

Two researchers, Jackie Silverman and Alixandra Barasch, were at a brewery when something sparked their curiosity. Dr. Silverman’s husband casually stopped using a craft beer tracking app he used regularly. This seemingly ordinary event made them wonder why streaks seem to matter. 

“We were kind of giving him a hard time,” said Dr.  Silverman, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Delaware. “But he explained it didn’t seem that important anymore because he’d forgotten to track it the week before.” 

“Alix and I being consumer psychologists were like, ‘Well, that’s weird. Why did your utility change just because you missed one?’ 

And so that started us down this rabbit hole about thinking about how consumers track what they do … (and how) inevitably ruining that record can have negative effects.”

Influence of streaks on motivation

Through a series of analyses, the curious researchers found that streaks we’ve recently achieved can strongly influence how committed we believe we are to our goals

People are more likely to think they’ll stick to a goal if they’ve been doing things that support that goal recently, compared to if they haven’t. This is especially true for difficult goals that require dedication. Streaks act like a visible sign that someone is serious about their goal.

This explains why apps like Duolingo and Peloton use streaks to keep people engaged. Silverman’s research shows that even streaks that aren’t entirely real, like those you can “fix” on Duolingo, can still motivate people.

Disadvantages of breaking a streak

“On the flip side, what we find is that when people break their streaks, that is especially demotivating, because not only have they missed out on some behavior that they like doing that they’re tracking, but they also now have failed in the goal of keeping their streak alive,” Dr. Silverman explained.

One reason for this is that people dislike losing things more than they like gaining things. Breaking a streak feels like a loss, because they lose the streak itself and the feeling of progress they had. Streaks can also become a habit, making it easier to stick with a goal. If the streak breaks, it can be hard to get back on track.

Shockingly, apps that use streaks to keep people engaged can sometimes discourage them instead. While these apps can help with motivation at first, reminders about broken streaks can make people feel like they’re failing. 

Streaks shape our thinking

Streaks also affect our perception. They can make people more confident in their ability to reach a goal. For example, imagine someone who’s been sticking to a diet or exercise plan. They’ll likely feel more confident that they can keep it up. 

This confidence can be helpful for keeping them on track. However, it can also make them think they don’t need help from others. For instance, someone who’s been eating healthy might not think they need a nutritionist. This overconfidence could hurt their progress in the long run, because external support can be important for lasting change.

Moreover, streaks can influence how we judge others. When someone constantly does something positive, like showing up to work on time or getting good grades, we tend to think they’ll keep doing it. This can affect our expectations. 

For example, a student who’s never missed class might be seen as more likely to keep showing up than a student with the same number of absences spread throughout the semester. This also highlights the importance of past behavior in shaping our expectations.

Using streaks for positive motivation

Streaks can be like a buddy cheering you on. They keep you motivated, but only if you’re using them for the right reasons. The key is understanding why you want that streak. Is it just to see a high number, or is it because each day brings you closer to your goals? 

Streaks are a great motivational tool for tracking progress and celebrating little wins. App creators can contribute to this as well. Instead of just encouraging people to be glued to their phone, they can use these streaks to help build habits in a healthy way. 

Remember, streaks are a tool, just like a hammer. A hammer can build a house, but it can also smash your thumb. Use them wisely, and they’ll help you reach your goals in no time.

The researchers investigated the power of streaks on goal pursuit in a pair of studies published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes and the Journal of Consumer Research.


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