Developing a skill such as public speaking can be uncomfortable and difficult, but new research shows that instead of avoiding embarrassment, seeking it out can actually result in better motivation and personal growth.
Through the first study and field experiment of its kind at Chicago’s Second City, one of the most renowned improvisation clubs in the U.S., Kaitlin Woolley ’12, associate professor at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, and Ayelet Fishbach, social psychologist at the University of Chicago, sought to study a way to help people advance goals that are challenging, such as public speaking.
In their paper “Motivating Personal Growth by Seeking Discomfort,” published March 29 in Psychological Science, they found that seeking discomfort is motivating because people can tell when they feel uncomfortable and this “tangible feeling” of discomfort can lead to goal progress.
“People often see discomfort as a sign to stop pursuing a goal, yet discomfort often means you are making progress,” Woolley said. “We find people can harness discomfort to motivate themselves to achieve important goals.”
For their first study, Woolley and Fishbach partnered with the Second City to conduct a multiwave experiment with more than 550 students across 55 classes. Instructors facilitated the exercise to deliver one of two sets of instructions, either asking students to seek discomfort as their goal (i.e., “your goal is to feel awkward and uncomfortable during the exercise”) or baseline instructions that students typically hear when performing an improv exercise.
“Instructing students to seek discomfort increased their persistence and risk-taking in the exercise – they made more progress and learned more,” Woolley said.
In four additional experiments, the researchers found that seeking discomfort is motivating when writing about difficult emotional events; learning about health information, such as about the COVID-19 pandemic; opening oneself to opposing political viewpoints; and learning about the issue of gun violence. For example, Democrats and Republicans alike were more open to hearing the other party’s political views when seeking discomfort compared with seeking to learn.
“Our society is becoming more politically divided. Our intervention helps open people up to information that is important, but uncomfortable to hear and may help close the political divide,” Woolley said.
In summary, the researchers determined that in order to grow in life and at work, people need to put themselves in situations that may feel daunting, such as pitching a new idea, making a career change or cold calling.
“When we feel out of our comfort zone, we interpret that as a sign to proceed carefully, or not at all. Yet ultimately to succeed in business, we need to take risks,” Woolley said. “Seeking discomfort can help ensure our success.”
Sarah Magnus-Sharpe is director of public relations and communications at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.