Motivation and emotion/Book/2023/Köhler effect and motivation

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Köhler effect and motivation:
What is the Köhler effect and how can it be applied?

Overview[edit | edit source]

In the mid 1920s, the first reports of motivation gain in controlled experiments were discovered by Otto Köhler (Hertel et al., 2000). In his original studies, Köhler demonstrated that members of a Berlin rowing club displayed higher performance in a physical persistence task when working in dyads as compared to working alone (Hertel et al., 2000). What is especially interesting in Köhler’s findings is that motivation gains were only observed when the discrepancy between the abilities of the two members was moderate, and the design which was implemented to create these motivation gains (Hertel et al., 2000). Throughout our lives and daily routines we are consistently faced with a plethora of information regarding the abilities, strengths and weaknesses of those we see (Mussweiler et al., 2004). This information comes from not just those who are in our immediate surroundings but includes those we see on social media. This provides us with an endless supply of opportunity in which we undertake social comparison (Mussweiler et al., 2004).In fact, due to the abundance of stimuli for social comparison, there is no surprise that we are selective in which stimuli we allow social comparison to take place (Festinger, 1954, as cited in Mussweiler et al., 2004). One of the areas in which social comparison often takes place is in regard to group work. There are many areas which are increasingly relying on group work including politics, sports, learning and society in general (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). Thus, understanding its [what?] mechanisms and the role it plays in motivation gain is crucial to developing future interventions. In regards to the phenomena of motivation gain, two main theories emerge; the Köhler effect and social comparison theory (Kerr et al., 2007).

Focus questions:

  • What is the Kohler Effect and its psychological mechanisms?
  • What is the importance of understanding group dynamics?

Understanding the Köhler Effect[edit | edit source]

In its simplest form, the Köhler effect occurs when the least competent group members show an increase in effort when working on conjunctive tasks[Define conjunctive task] (Kerr et al., 2007), often exerting themselves beyond usual performance limits (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). For example, when two mountaineers are tethered together, they are involved in a conjunctive task; the performance of the ‘weaker’ group member determines how successful both members are. Based on the research of the Köhler effect, the weaker mountaineer should see an increase in effort to ensure group success. To explain this effect, two main frameworks have been proposed; social comparison and indispensability (Kerr & Hertel, 2011; Kerr et al., 2007; Lount Jr & Phillips, 2007).

Fig.1 - Mountaineering: An example of a conjunctive task

The Indispensability Argument[edit | edit source]

The first explanation is the indispensability argument. When a group is involved on a conjunctive task, there are multiple concerns which arise to enhance effort. These include social responsibility norms, feelings regarding ones personal performance or reputation and concerns about holding the group back (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). Essentially, the explanation states that the more indispensable people perceive their role to be, the more effort they exert (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). It should be mentioned that this mechanism can come from either a collectivist or individualistic viewpoint. In a collectivist viewpoint, when an individual views their position as indispensable, the motivating effect comes from the group member increasing their efforts to maximise the group outcome (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). However, when this motivating effect stems from an individualistic viewpoint, the increase in effort seen is in an attempt to avoid unfavourable social evaluations (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). This is similar in the social comparison argument for the Köhler effect which we will discuss in the next section. All in all though, when an individual realises that one’s efforts affects both one’s own outcome and the outcome of others, the indispensability mechanism is triggered (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). There are two main mediators to this mechanism which follow the expectancy/ instrumentality X value (I X V) framework (Hüffmeier & Hertel, 2011; Kerr & Hertel, 2011; Kerr et al., 2007; Messé et al., 2002). In this framework, the variables which mediate the indispensability mechanisms are how much individual group members perceive their role as crucial to achieving group outcomes and the value placed on said outcomes which are directly related to individual effort (Gockel et al., 2008; Kerr & Hertel, 2011; Messé et al., 2002). As mentioned previously, variables from and thoughts from collectivist and individualistic viewpoints can also factor into the I X V equation (Gockel et al., 2008; Kerr & Hertel, 2011).

Instrumental X Value Perspective

  • Instrumental / Indispensability = My role is crucial to group success
  • Value = Value attached to the outcomes that are directly influenced by me

Social Comparison Perspective[edit | edit source]

The next explanation regards social comparison{[gr}}. In social comparison theory, there are two perspectives which must be considered. Upward social comparison refers to individuals self-evaluating upwards to those who are better off (Gerber et al., 2018). It is thought that when we compare upward we attempt to assimilate with the individual we are comparing to, thus, leading to us evaluating ourselves as a part of the same category (Gerber et al., 2018). Conversely, downward social comparison is often involved when self-esteem is threatened, thus comparing to someone perceived as lower to you restores self-esteem (Gerber et al., 2018). However, when looking at group dynamics, social comparison occurs when an increase in effort is seen in some members to anticipate for the poor performance of other member apart of that group (Kerr et al., 2007; Lount Jr & Phillips, 2007).  The above explanations provide various definitions for social comparison. When observing the Köhler motivation gain effect, it is thought that when a weaker partner paired with a more capable partner on a valued task is involved in upward social comparison (Kerr et al., 2007). If we refer back to our definitions of upward social comparison (Gerber et al., 2018), and our mountaineering example, the weaker group member would evaluate their mountaineering abilities as similar to the more competent member, thereby producing a motivating effect. Further, the weaker group member may also re-evaluate their goals upward with suggestions that becoming better or more successful than the partner is of high value (Kerr et al., 2005). This change in goal setting isn’t the only mechanism involved, with suggestions that eliciting favourable social evaluations may also play a part in producing this motivating effect (Kerr & Hertel, 2011).

If we look at gender differences of the Köhler effect, favourable social evaluations being a trigger for this mechanism are shown. When males are paired with a more competent female almost twice as much effort is put into conjunctive tasks when compared to weaker males paired with a more competent male (Kerr et al., 2007; Lount Jr & Phillips, 2007). This suggests that who the weaker partner is paired with plays a significant role in effort put forward (Lount Jr & Phillips, 2007). In studies regarding software developed workout partners, males showed an increase in effort when workout partners showed signs of fatigue, indicating that competitiveness may play a role in eliciting motivation gain (Max et al., 2016). It is possible that the competitiveness seen in this study is one of the mediators males put forward twice as much effort against female partners. Further, the perceived discrepancy between the two partners[grammar?] abilities has shown to play a role in producing the motivating effect seen (Lee et al., 2018; Messé et al., 2002; Moss et al., 2021). The opportunity for optimal social comparison, and therefore greatest motivational gain, requires that the discrepancy between workers be moderate (Hertel et al., 2000; Messé et al., 2002) . If the weaker individual perceives they are nowhere near similar in ability, the motivating effect will not be elicited (Max et al., 2016). Similarly, smaller motivation gains are also observed when group members are nearly equal in ability levels (Hertel et al., 2000; Messé et al., 2002). The ideal discrepancy has been reported at a ratio of 0.7 and has been termed with Köhler discrepancy effect (Hertel et al., 2000).

Striving to Avoid Inferiority[edit | edit source]

Another potential mechanism at play, which is related to social comparison, is the concept of striving to avoid inferiority. Development in social psychology outline two main motivations behind achievement; growth seekers and validation seekers (Bellew et al., 2006; Gilbert et al., 2007). Growth seekers refers to individuals who enjoy challenge and ability to learn through mistakes, while validation seekers feel under constant pressure and strive to prove themselves as likeable (Bellew et al., 2006; Gilbert et al., 2007). Research surrounding mental wellbeing has shown validation seekers to be at higher risk of depression (Gilbert et al., 2009), eating disorders (Bellew et al., 2006), and other negative emotions and self-evaluations (Gilbert et al., 2007; Gilbert et al., 2009). With this concern in mind, development of interventions based on the Köhler motivation effect need to consider the potential risk factors of eliciting certain types of upward social comparison, especially when said upward social comparison is driven by attempting to gain favourable social comparison (Kerr & Hertel, 2011)

Summary[edit | edit source]

To summarise, the Köhler effect is when an increase in motivation is seen from less abled team members under conjunctive task demands (Messé et al., 2002). The Köhler discrepancy effect refers to the ideal discrepancy between abilities to produce optimal motivation gain (Hertel et al., 2000). For optimal motivation gain to occur, the discrepancy between abilities must be moderate, or at a ratio of about 0.7 (Hertel et al., 2000). To explain the motivation gain observed, two mechanisms have been proposed. The indispensability argument and social comparison. The indispensability argument follows the I X V framework. In this framework the mediators of this mechanism are the perception of importance of their role in achieving group outcome, weighted against the value placed on said outcome, which is directly related to individual effort (Gockel et al., 2008; Kerr & Hertel, 2011; Messé et al., 2002). The social comparison mechanism is triggered when opportunities for upward social comparison, goal re-evaluation and elicitation of favourable social evaluation are present (Gerber et al., 2018; Kerr & Hertel, 2011; Kerr et al., 2005; Kerr et al., 2007). Therefore, an increase in motivation under conjunctive tasks is observed, and the Köhler effect is present.  


1 Does Gender influence motivation on conjunctive tasks?[grammar?]:


2 What is the ideal discrepancy ratio between group members?


3 Indispensability referes  to?

How much better the other member is
Perceived importance in achieving group outcome
Perceived importance in achieving group outcome and how crucial individual role is

Applications of the Köhler Effect[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Now that we have discussed the theory and mechanisms behind the Köhler effect, we can begin to apply its teaching to everyday life. Before discussing the Köhler effect within the health space, think back on the mountaineering example, and mechanisms involved in eliciting the Köhler effect. To successfully apply the Köhler paradigm, certain elements of psychological mechanisms can be utilised to encourage particular thought patterns which encourage the Köhler motivation gain effect.

Health Applications[edit | edit source]

One area where we can apply the Köhler efect[spelling?] is within the health space. Think back to when you have played a team sport or maybe gone to the gym with a friend. Did you put in more effort? Did you push past your limits more so than if you were alone? If so, the Köhler effect may of explaned{{sp} why. At the moment, there is an increasing body of research into virtual workout partners (Feltz et al., 2011; Max et al., 2016; Samendinger et al., 2017). The thought is, if we can create a virtual workout partners that can adjust their abilities and schedules to match or be slightly better than the individual usiing{{sp} them (Lee et al., 2018), we can address the barriers to phsycial{{sp} activity (Max et al., 2016), therefore motivating them to participate in healtheir{{sp} behaviours. In terms of traditional gym style exercise, the creation of software generated programs can have some benefits over training with a human partner. Firstly, the exergame[explain?] program doesn’t have a schedule and can be accessed at any time (Lee et al., 2018). This means that when people get a random burst of motivation they can access the program and utilise said motivation. Further, say the partner you are training with is so much better than you all the time. This has the potential to be quite demotivating. Therefore, the software genrated{{sp} partner has the ability to be malluable{{sp} and adjust to the participants needs, always staying within the recommended moderate range to elecit{{sp} the Köhler phenomenon (Lee et al., 2018; Messé et al., 2002). However, this in itself can still be quite demotivating. A major concern of the Köhler paradigm is that if used long term, as in this scenario, the exerciser may begin to feel helpless due to the forced upward social comparison which is necessary to eleicit{{sp} the Köhler effect (Lee et al., 2018). Due to the Köhler effect requiring conjunctive task demands to elicit motivation gain (Kerr & Hertel, 2011; Kerr et al., 2005; Lount Jr & Phillips, 2007; Messé et al., 2002), production of software generated exercise partners would need to take this into consideration.

Fig.2 - Wii fit - An example of an exergame

Demographic Considerations[edit | edit source]

One thing mentioned previously is the differences in gender and in and out group differences. Within exergames there has been some differences in the motivaition{{sp} gain found depending on both the gender and race of the other team member (Max et al., 2016; Moss et al., 2021). Moss et al. (2021), have looked into the motivational implications of racial disimilarity{{sp} through pairing White males with Black and Asian partners and testing their performance in an abdominal plank task where the outcome was dependant on the weaker person. Their findings suggest that when White males were paired with a stronger Black partner, they persisted significanty{{sp} less than if they were paired with another White, or Asian partner (Moss et al., 2021). Seeing as there was no decline in performance when White males were paired with an Asian partner, it is suggested that the White males may be sensitive to Black partners in particular, but not necessairly{{sp} racial disimilarity{{sp}(Moss et al., 2021). If being racially dissimilar was a motivating factor, results would indicate the same reduction in motivation with Asian partners, as they did with Black partners. Moss et al. (2021) suggest that its possible White males may of [awkward expression?] felt less obligated with a Black partner, leading to the lower resistance shown. It is also possible that sterotypes{{sp} of Black males being athletically stronger caused a larger social comparison (Moss et al., 2021), meaning the moderate discrepency{{sp} requirements were exceeded (Lee et al., 2018; Messé et al., 2002). What is more interesting about this finding is that when simple team building interventions were introduced, such as introducing a team name or shirt, reduced motivaiton{{sp} lossess{{sp} of White males paired with Black partners (Moss et al., 2021). This suggests increasing team identity between partners may overcome intergroup biases (Harrison et al., 1998; Moss et al., 2021). Further, there have also been some gender differences presented relating to the Köhler effect (Kerr et al., 2005; Max et al., 2016). Max et al. (2016) attempted to enhance aerobic capacity through exergames, finding that only men were sensitive to the Köhler paradigm presented. However, this was only seen when the software generated partner showed signs of fatigue (Max et al., 2016). Therefore, suggesting that competitiveness of male participants may of encouraged them when the software generated partner showed signs of fatigue, thus, generating a motivating effect (Max et al., 2016). Kerr et al. (2005, have showed that when males are paired with a more competent female partner, supporting the notion that social comparison is an important process in eliciting motivation gain (Lount Jr & Phillips, 2007)[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Development of Future Interventions[edit | edit source]

The psychological mechanisms mediating the Köhler effect can be broken down and utilised to increase the chance of motivation gain. If we take the indispensability and social comparison component and increase the likelihood that these mechanisms are triggered, the Köhler effect can be applied in a range of settings. In terms of maximising the indispensability component, interventions can target increasing the perception that weaker members efforts are crucial to group success (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). If their perception of indispensability is also reinforced, coupled with maximising the value placed on team success (Kerr & Hertel, 2011), it is possible to generate the motivating effects seen in previous research and apply it to a specific field. For example, workplaces could split team members up into partners and apply conjunctive tasks to generate final work product. Although good in theory, there are limitations to this example. Mainly, this design is difficult to implement in complex work environments and has the potential to decrease the motivation of the higher performing group member (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). Alternatively, positive reward reinforcement for team success, if valued, would increase the prevalence of the indispensability mechanism (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). In order to maximise the social comparison component, social comparison opportunities must be present. For social comparison to be viable, discrepancy between team members needs to be moderate (Lee et al., 2018; Messé et al., 2002), and it is suggested that team member composition changes to ensure the weaker member isn't always inferior to the same person (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). This can be increased further by integrating gender differences between partners (Kerr & Hertel, 2011), or pairing the weaker member with an out-group partner to increase competitiveness (Lount Jr & Phillips, 2007). Findings from Messé et al. (2002), should not be disregarded and team identity needs to be considered when paring with an out-group to ensure the discrepancy between team members isn't too large. For both the indispensability and social comparison mechanisms, individual contributions being identifiable and feedback of work being comparable between group members, would provide increase both psychological mechanisms (Kerr & Hertel, 2011).

Summary[edit | edit source]

As shown, there is a range of application for the Köhler motivation gain effect. Virtual software generated workout partners and exergames is a building body of research showing efficacy for increasing physical attributes of participants under the Köhler paradigm. Breaking down the psychological mechanisms involved, indispensability and social comparison, can be applied in smaller doses to elicit the sought after motivation gain. To apply to a wide range of variables, it is necessary to break down the psychological mechanisms and build interventions based on research by Kerr and Hertel (2011).

Reflection[edit | edit source]

Reflect on the potential pros and cons of software generated workout partners. In dot points, outline the how and why the Köhler effect may or may not be suitable to implement in these spaces

Consider the following:

  • Discrepancy between team members
  • Race of partner
  • Gender of partner
  • Type of task – what type of task?
  • Program they can be integrated to
  • Good or bad for older generations?
  • Positive social aspect?

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The Köhler effect has large potential in eliciting motivation gain in group settings. In its simplest form, the Köhler effect occurs when the least competent group members show an increase in effort when working on conjunctive tasks (Kerr et al., 2007), often exerting themselves beyond usual performance limits (Kerr & Hertel, 2011). For example, two mountaineers who are tethered together during their climb. To explain the Köhler effect, two main perspectives have been put forward; the indispensability argument and social comparison perspective. However, developments in social psychology also outline a striving to avoid inferiority perspective which should be considered when attempting to eliciting motivation gain through social comparison of the Köhler effect. Regardless, implementation of the Köhler paradigm has shown promising results in increasing physical activity through software generated workout partners. The effects seen here can also be applied to various other fields through targeting the indispensability and social comparison processes at play. The Köhler effect is of utmost importance in understanding group motivation gains.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bellew, R., Gilbert, P., Mills, A., McEwan, K., & Gale, C. (2006). Eating attitudes and striving to avoid inferiority. Eating Disorders, 14(4), 313-322.

Feltz, D. L., Kerr, N. L., & Irwin, B. C. (2011). Buddy up: the Köhler effect applied to health games. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 33(4), 506-526.

Gerber, J. P., Wheeler, L., & Suls, J. (2018). A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on. Psychological bulletin, 144(2), 177.

Gilbert, P., Broomhead, C., Irons, C., McEwan, K., Bellew, R., Mills, A., Gale, C., & Knibb, R. (2007). Development of a striving to avoid inferiority scale. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46(3), 633-648.

Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Bellew, R., Mills, A., & Gale, C. (2009). The dark side of competition: How competitive behaviour and striving to avoid inferiority are linked to depression, anxiety, stress and self-harm. Psychology and psychotherapy, 82(2), 123-136.

Gockel, C., Kerr, N. L., Seok, D.-H., & Harris, D. W. (2008). Indispensability and group identification as sources of task motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(5), 1316-1321.

Harrison, D. A., Price, K. H., & Bell, M. P. (1998). Beyond relational demography: Time and the effects of surface-and deep-level diversity on work group cohesion. Academy of management journal, 41(1), 96-107.

Hertel, G., Kerr, N. L., Scheffler, M., Geister, S., & Messé, L. A. (2000). Exploring the Kohler motivation gain effect: Impression management and spontaneous goal setting. Zeitschrift fur Sozialpsychologie, 31(4), 204-220.

Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2011). When the whole is more than the sum of its parts: Group motivation gains in the wild. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(2), 455-459.

Kerr, N. L., & Hertel, G. (2011). The Köhler group motivation gain: How to motivate the ‘weak links’ in a group. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 43-55.

Kerr, N. L., Messé, L. A., Park, E. S., & Sambolec, E. J. (2005). Identifiability, performance feedback and the Köhler effect. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 8(4), 375-390.

Kerr, N. L., Messé, L. A., Seok, D.-H., Sambolec, E. J., Lount Jr, R. B., & Park, E. S. (2007). Psychological mechanisms underlying the Köhler motivation gain. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(6), 828-841.

Lee, S., Myers, N. D., Park, T., Hill, C. R., & Feltz, D. L. (2018). An Exploratory Study on the Köhler Effect and Flow in Long-term Exergaming. Simulation & gaming, 49(5), 538-552.

Lount Jr, R. B., & Phillips, K. W. (2007). Working harder with the out-group: The impact of social category diversity on motivation gains. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 103(2), 214-224.

Max, E. J., Samendinger, S., Winn, B., Kerr, N. L., Pfeiffer, K. A., & Feltz, D. L. (2016). Enhancing aerobic exercise with a novel virtual exercise buddy based on the Köhler effect. Games for health journal, 5(4), 252-257. Messé, L. A., Hertel, G., Kerr, N. L., Lount Jr, R. B., & Park, E. S. (2002). Knowledge of partner's ability as a moderator of group motivation gains: An exploration of the Köhler discrepancy effect. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 82(6), 935.

Moss, T., Samendinger, S., Kerr, N. L., Cesario, J., Smith, A. L., Johnson, D. J., & Feltz, D. L. (2021). Attenuation of the Köhler Effect in Racially Dissimilar Partnered Exercise Reversed Using Team Identity Strategy. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 43(2), 105-114.

Mussweiler, T., Rüter, K., & Epstude, K. (2004). The man who wasn't there: Subliminal social comparison standards influence self-evaluation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(5), 689-696.

Samendinger, S., Forlenza, S. T., Winn, B., Max, E. J., Kerr, N. L., Pfeiffer, K. A., & Feltz, D. L. (2017). Introductory dialogue and the Köhler Effect in software-generated workout partners. Psychology of sport and exercise, 32, 131-137.

External links[edit | edit source]

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