How Stress Kills Motivation

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
4 min readNov 15, 2021
Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Everyone knows that stress is harmful, but there’s serious scientific debate around exactly how it affects cognitive ability. Some argue it directly damages your ability to control your actions, others argue it has no impact, and still others argue that it damages particular types of cognitive control but not others. The data tell a confusing story to say the least.

Fortunately, a new study has added some fresh light to the picture. It shows that one major reason to stress about stress is because it weakens your motivation.

Comic from Mr Lovenstein

Choosing the easy way out

In a recent study, Mario Bogdanov and his colleagues at McGill University recruited 40 participants to complete a 20-min task. The task showed people a couple of circles on a screen, each with a unique pattern. Whenever a person selected one of those patterns, they saw a number. If the number appeared in yellow, the participant had to indicate whether it was an even or odd number. If the number appeared in blue, the participant had to indicate whether it was a low (1–4) or high (6–9) number.

Each of the patterned circles had its own little secret. One of them — let’s call it the “demanding cue” — switched between yellow and blue tasks 90% of the time. The other “easy cue” switched between yellow and blue only 10% of the time. Previous behavioral studies have shown that people find task-switching more difficult than repeatedly doing the same task. That’s what made the demanding cue so demanding in this experiment.

In addition to seeing how accurately people solved the number problems, the researchers checked how often people chose the demanding cue and how stress affected their choice.

To amplify people’s stress levels, the researchers used a task that closely reflected a real-life stressful activity. They put people through a mock job interview in front of a couple of very unimpressed interviewers. They even asked everyone to do some tricky arithmetic in front of the panel.

The study ran across 2 days. Half of the participants did the stress induction on the first day, and the other half did the…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: