ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS American cartoonists of the 20th century was Rube Goldberg, who was widely known for his “Goldberg machines.” Each of these comical inventions depicted a complex set of “instructions” for completing what should have been a fairly simple everyday task. His Self-Operating Napkin, for example, required 13 sequential steps involving a parrot, a cigar lighter, a rocket and a sickle—along with various strings, springs and pendulums.

The cartoons were funny because they poked good-natured fun at a fundamental irony of human psychology. People will make even the simplest task much more complicated than it needs to be, yet all this overexplaining rarely helps. Indeed, the opposite is often true: Goldberg’s convoluted “how-to” instructions may make us laugh, but they also leave us feeling exhausted. If that is what it takes to use a napkin, why would we bother?

How Things “Feel”
Psychologists are very interested in the complex interplay of effort, motivation and cognitive crunching—the ease with which we think about a task in our mind. Is it possible that the simplicity (or complexity) of how a task is described and processed—whether it feels “fluid” or “difficult”—actually affects our attitude toward the task itself and ultimately our willingness to put our head down and work?

Two psychologists at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor decided to investigate this idea in their lab. Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz wanted to see if they could motivate a group of 20-year-old college students to exercise regularly. They gave all the students written instructions for a regular exercise routine, but they used a simple yet ingenious method to make the how-to instructions either cognitively palatable or challenging: some received instructions printed in Arial typeface, a plain font designed for easy reading; others got their instructions printed in a Brush font, which basically looks as if it has been written by hand with a Japanese paintbrush—it is unfamiliar and much harder to read.

There are many ways to make something mentally palatable—or not. You can use clear, straightforward language or arcane vocabulary words; simple sentences or convoluted sentences with lots of clauses.

The psychologists chose to vary the font, because it is easy to manipulate in the lab. After the students had all read the instructions, the researchers asked them some questions about the exercise regimen: how long they thought it would take, whether it would flow naturally or drag on endlessly, whether it would be boring, and so forth. They also queried the students about whether they were likely to make exercise a routine part of their day.

Give It to Me Plain
The findings were remarkable. Those who had read the exercise instructions in an unadorned, accessible typeface were much more open to the prospect of exercising: they believed that the regimen would take less time and that it would feel more fluid and easy. Most important, they were more willing to make exercise part of their day.

Apparently the students’ brains mistook the ease of reading about exercise for the ease of actually doing push-ups and crunches, and this misunderstanding motivated them to think about a life change. Those who struggled through the Japanese brushstrokes had no intention of heading to the gym; the reading alone tired them out.

Song and Schwarz decided to double-check these results with another experiment, this one involving a completely unrelated activity: cooking.

Again they used easy-and hard-to-read typefaces, but in this case the instructions were for making a Japanese sushi roll. After the volunteers had read the recipe, they estimated how long it would take them to make the dish and whether they were inclined to do it. They were also asked how much skill a professional cook would need to prepare the sushi roll.

The results were basically the same as before. As reported in the October 2008 issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who read the instructions in the mentally challenging script saw the task as time-consuming and requiring a high level of culinary skill; they were not apt to try it themselves. They, in effect, viewed the alien writing as a proxy for the actual task and as a result ended up avoiding it. Those who received the more digestible instructions were much more likely to head for the kitchen and sharpen their knives.

Our brains employ all kinds of tricks and shortcuts to get us through the day with the least mental and physical effort, but it is good to be wary of these automatic judgments. If unchecked, our tendency to confuse thoughts and actions can make dubious choices seem easier and more desirable than they ought to be, or it can discourage us from healthy habits and creative exploration. After all, most of the time using a “self-operating” napkin is just as simple as it appears to be.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "A Recipe for Motivation".