Goal-setting and feedback improves attention, study

UTA cognitive psychologist evaluates human ability to perform tasks over time.


Even to essential tasks like driving, reading, and listening in meetings, sustaining attention can be quite difficult. The longer that an individual performs a task, the worse their performance tends to be.

To achieve the desired goal, it is essential to maintain focus on a task, whether it be learning or job-related, or if you are designing something that you want people to engage with, giving feedback about their performance is a very powerful motivator.

A new study quantified the effectiveness of goal-setting, feedback, and incentive manipulations on participants’ ability to sustain their attention. It found that goal-setting is effective but receiving feedback produces a much stronger effect.

Scientists performed four experiments in which a simple but attentionally demanding task was given to participants. The participants were asked to perform it for 30 minutes.

While participants were performing a task, scientists measured the effectiveness of goal-setting, feedback, and incentive manipulations on participants’ ability to sustain their attention. Participants provided commentary about their levels of motivation and alertness and disclosed the status of their attention as on-task, wandering, or absent.

In the first experiments, it was found that setting goals improved sustained attention. Although, it doesn’t produce any effect on task engagement.

During the second experiment, they split the performance time into blocks and provided feedback at the end of each. They found that combining a specific goal with feedback improved attention and motivation. The feedback was also found to be an impressive regulator of task-unrelated thoughts.

Incentives such as a cash bonus or early release from the experiment increased task engagement or performance compared to the effects of goals and/or feedback.

Matthew Robison, UT Arlington assistant professor of psychology and first author of the study, said, “Even in conditions when people report feeling motivated and engaged, it is difficult to maintain optimal performance, especially if the task is attentionally demanding.”

Leaders should be aware of the limitations of the human cognitive system to perform monotonous tasks over long periods. Jobs such as lifeguarding, TSA screening, or radar monitoring, where important events are rare but require vigilance, may push an individual’s attention beyond its limits.”

“We need to be cognizant of the level of difficulty involved in sustaining attention when we ask others to perform tasks where they must be attentive for long periods. It is possible that we put ourselves in harm’s way by relying too much on the human attentional system to accomplish feats that may not be achievable.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Matthew Robison Nash Unsworth Gene Brewer. Examining the effects of goal-setting, feedback, and incentives on sustained attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. DOI: 10.31234/osf.io/97t8w