The Psychology of Striving: Yeager on Purpose & Persistence

Why Humans Strive for More

Yeager and Huberman discuss the human drive to strive and feel better. They explore how this drive changes during adolescence, as young people’s criteria for feeling good about themselves shift from parental approval to social standing among peers.

Yeager explains that in ancient human cultures, being alone and ostracized meant certain death, so the fear of losing social value becomes a central concern for adolescents. They must navigate complex social hierarchies and constantly assess their standing relative to others.

This process is driven by changes in the brain, particularly the dopaminergic system, which is influenced by gonadal maturation. Yeager references studies of songbirds, where testosterone drives obsessive practice of mating calls, crucial for their survival and reproduction.

Despite adults often perceiving teenagers as lazy, many Olympic athletes and prodigious talents in various fields emerge during this period, demonstrating the immense capacity for learning and dedication that can manifest during adolescence.

Why People Strive to Get Better

Yeager focuses on how adolescents strive to gain status in their social circles in meaningful ways. They look for what counts and try to bring something valuable to the table.

Huberman notes that in the past, high school social structures were more divided, but now they seem more mixed. Kids find their niche and try to excel within that niche, creating sub-hierarchies.

Research shows that schools with multiple social hierarchies have better adjustment compared to single-hierarchy schools. In single-hierarchy schools, those near the top but not at the very top have incentives to engage in negative behaviors to protect their status.

Testosterone plays a role in striving and pursuit motivation for both boys and girls. The slope of testosterone increase is predictive of striving, as measured by neural activation during social reward and risk-taking tasks.

Growth mindset can be applied to different domains, but there is also domain-specificity. To predict behavior, it’s best to measure mindset in the specific domain of interest. However, when intervening, a more general approach to changing mindsets may be beneficial to avoid defensiveness.

Attaching Your Goal to Something for Others Makes the Effort Its Own Reward

Yeager discusses the importance of finding meaning in life by contributing to others. Correlational studies show that the best predictor of life satisfaction and well-being is the feeling of being connected to and contributing to others.

Yeager’s research compares two motivations for persisting through tedious or frustrating tasks: potential personal benefits and the ability to contribute to others with the knowledge and skills gained. The “purpose condition” focuses on the social reward of being prepared to make a difference for others, rather than the distant material reward.

When framing tedious math as a chance to gain skills to contribute to others, Yeager found that teenagers showed deeper learning, greater persistence, higher grades, and chose boring math over goofing off online. This challenges the assumption that teenagers are only motivated by short-term rewards or looking cool.

Huberman emphasizes the significance of attaching goals to something that benefits others, as it makes the effort involved its own form of reward. This is central to human evolution, as individuals had to demonstrate their value to the group.

Yeager notes that the harder the effort is when done for others, the more noble and impressive it becomes, leading to positive social status. In contrast, trying hard and failing for oneself can lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy.

Reframing Difficulty as Part of the Process

Yeager discusses the importance of reframing difficulty and failure as part of the process of doing something with high integrity for others. When he was a graduate student at Stanford, he supervised a project that involved finding the best adjectives to use in survey items. To motivate the undergraduates working on this tedious task, Yeager gave them the “save the world” speech, emphasizing how their work could make a difference and how it would be scrutinized by skeptics.

Huberman and Yeager also discuss the importance of scrutiny in science, such as the website Pub Peer, where papers are evaluated online. While some people may use this platform to find circumstantial evidence to make someone look bad, Yeager believes that the possibility of scrutiny should motivate everyone to treat their work as though it’s inevitable and be careful in their process.

Yeager’s experience as a lab manager gave him the idea for the purpose studies, which assume that people want to do good work but might find an easier way to do it. By motivating with an appeal to how their work could make a difference and the consequences of not taking it seriously, Yeager and his team had the hardest working research assistants that summer.

Huberman summarizes Yeager’s point by saying that attaching our motivation to the contribution we’re going to make can make the process more rewarding and positively contribute to society.

The Power of Combining Self-Interest and Contribution

Huberman and Yeager discuss the idea of a “contribution mindset” and how it relates to high-achieving individuals. They note that while many successful people are often perceived as being primarily driven by self-interest, there are also those who stand out as shining examples of being mission-driven for the greater good.

Yeager explains that their research findings suggest that adding a prosocial contribution argument to personal benefits has a significant motivational effect. However, if the prosocial aspect is presented without any plausible benefit to the individual, it tends not to be as motivating.

The combination of learning new skills, gaining enjoyable employment, and making a contribution to others is what seems to be most effective in motivating students. Yeager emphasizes that the prosocial part needs to be added to the self-interested part, rather than solely focusing on sacrificing now for a potential financial reward in the future.

Finding Purpose in Work: The Role of Benefiting Others

Huberman and Yeager discuss the importance of incorporating a prosocial component into work, even in profit-driven industries. They argue that considering the end user’s needs and how a product can improve their life often leads to better design choices and ultimately more successful products.

Yeager gives the example of his friend Kreddick, who worked at Google and Apple. While designing products at these tech giants, Kreddick always kept the user in mind, asking questions like “What does the user need?” and “Is their life going to be better with this product?” This philosophy frequently resulted in design decisions that not only benefited the user but also made the product more profitable.

When teams strive to create high-quality products with integrity and ethics that will benefit people, they are more likely to put in extra effort and do better work. This approach can be applied to various industries, demonstrating that self-interest and prosocial goals are not mutually exclusive but can work together to drive success.

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