How Motivated Are We? An interview with Art Markman, Ph.D.

     Today we’re talking to Art Markman, Ph.D., a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He studied Cognitive Science and is a published author of over 150 works, which include his thoughts and research on topics like learning, decision making, creativity, and motivation. He agreed to chat with us about his ideas of motivation, and how it affects us as millennials and young professionals. We’re very thankful to Dr. Markman for taking the time to answer our questions and offer his advice! If you’re worried about your career, school, or identity, this is the interview for you.

  1. You studied cognitive science and psychology, but are currently teaching Psychology and Marketing? What lead you to the field of psychology and marketing? How does it related to your interest in cognitive science?  

    Cognitive Science is inherently a multidisciplinary field.  The idea is that the problems of mind are too difficult to answer from any one perspective, so drawing from many perspectives is crucial.  That means that I have always been open to finding new ways to address interesting questions about the mind.  When I was teaching at Columbia University in the 1990s, I had several students from the business school interested in cognitive science who came to work with me.  The area of consumer behavior is a fascinating way to study people’s decision making behavior, because they do not treat the studies like intelligence tests (as they often do when performing psychology experiments) and so you get an interesting look into their behavior.

    Another reason why marketing is a nice addition to psychology is that everything we learn about the mind has potential applications to people’s lives.  Studying consumer behavior has allowed me to think both about basic research in the field as well as the implications of that work for the way people act on a daily basis.  That has given me opportunities to bring this knowledge to the broader public beyond the scientific community..
  2. You’ve done a lot of work in the field of motivation, and the motivation behind achieving goals. What would you say is the number one factor that helps people achieve their goals?

    The motivational system is actually quite good at helping people achieve their goals.  Some of the research I did with Miguel Brendl suggests that when you have a goal that you are motivated to achieve, you increase your preference for things related to achieving the goal and decrease your preference for things unrelated to that goal.  As a result, you often succeed with the goals that are active in the moment.

    The problem is that many times there is a tradeoff between what you want to do right now and what you would like to achieve in the long-run.  In that case, you need to make it harder to focus on goals that are only desirable in the short-term.  For example, simple changes to the environment that make it harder to achieve short-term goals can increase your ability to succeed with long-term goals.

  3. Is there a type of motivation (money, love, duty/responsibility, etc) that’s stronger or more reliable than another?

    There are big individual differences in how strongly different goals motivate people.  Some of these differences are biological (people may differ in the strength of some of their drives) and some are learned (people may learn to value particular things like money).  The one constant for people is that short-term goals are generally stronger motivators than long-term goals.  That is why it is easy for most people to procrastinate on long-term projects by doing things that are enjoyable in the short-term.

  4. Many of our readers are millennials, which means most of them are just starting to figure out what their career paths are. What advice can you give to young adults who are looking to achieve in their careers, or who need help deciding which career to choose?

    Two big pieces of advice.

    First, you can learn to love almost any career as long as you can find a way to see how the work you do connects to a goal bigger than yourself.  That is, you don’t so much “find your passion” as develop a passion for work that you think is important.

    Second, don’t be afraid to really commit to what you are working on early.  Many new graduates want to find work-life balance right away.  Early in a career, it is valuable to immerse yourself in the work you are doing to become an expert.  That will open up many opportunities in the future.

  5. How closely are our emotions and identities tied to achieving our goals? Do our goals influence who we are even if we aren’t actively pursuing them?

    Emotions are a reflection of the current state of the motivational system.  When you are succeeding at your goals, you feel good.  When you are failing, you feel bad.  The more committed you are to the goal, the stronger the emotion.  So, emotions are more a reflection of goal achievement than a determinant of them.  But, you can use the strength of your emotions as a reliable guide to your commitment to a goal.

    There is a two-way relationship between self-concept and goal achievement.  On the one hand, we may edit the goals we choose to pursue based on our beliefs about who we are.  On the other hand, we may discover more about who we are by the kinds of goals we pursue.  My belief is that it is dangerous to do too much editing of your life story in advance.  Stay open to new opportunities and pursue them.  The story of your life will be richer that way.

  6. What’s your biggest motivation in life? Any goals you’re working towards next?

    I am not sure I have a biggest motivation.  I love to learn new things and to engage in new experiences.  I want to balance my scientific and academic pursuits with social and artistic ones.

    On the academic side, I am spending a lot of time developing programs to help teach people about how to be more effective dealing with the people they encounter at work.  I run a program at the University of Texas called the Human Dimensions of Organizations ( that offers a bachelors degree and masters degree for people who want to improve their understanding of people.

    On the artistic side, I play in a ska band in Austin called Phineas Gage. We write our own music and perform at clubs around town.

    I think these different facets of life complement each other.  You never know where the next good idea is going to come from, so it is valuable to experience as many things as possible and then to draw on the knowledge you get from those experiences to solve new problems in new ways.

Want more motivation? Check out his bio on PsychologyToday which links you to the rest of his work, as well as information on the radio show/podcast he co-hosts. A big thank you to Art Markman, Ph.D., and a big thank you to you readers. Don’t forget to comment below with any further questions or ideas! 

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