When Being Painfully Honest Can Be Motivational

A new study shows that there are times when tough love can be the most altruistic move.

When Being Painfully Honest Can Be Motivational

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of the cold, hard truth, instead of reacting with “ouch,” you might want to say “thank you.” New research published in Psychological Science found that tough love given the right way is often a great motivator.


While previous studies found that some people like to bring others down for their own personal gain, Belén López-Pérez, Liverpool Hope University psychological scientist, and colleagues Laura Howells and Michaela Gummerum from the University of Plymouth, wondered whether there might be altruistic reasons people purposefully worsen others’ moods.

The researchers set up an experiment that would test whether someone might choose a negative experience for another person if they thought it would help them reach a specific goal. Participants played one of two computer games with an anonymous (and nonexistent) Player A: Soldier of Fortune, a shooter game that has confrontation goals, and Escape Dead Island, a zombie game that involves avoidance goals. The participants were told that their opponent had recently gone through a painful breakup. Half were asked to empathize, while the other half were told to remain detached. Then they were asked to choose music and provide a description of the game for Player A.

Compared to the participants who were asked to remain detached, those who empathized with Player A in the shooter game chose to induce anger, while those who had empathized with Player A and played the zombie game focused specifically on inducing fear.

“What was surprising was that affect worsening was not random but emotion-specific,” writes López-Pérez. “In line with previous research, our results have shown that people hold very specific expectations about the effects that certain emotions may have and about which emotions may be better for achieving different goals.”

Empathy, the study concludes, can lead people to provoke negative emotional experiences if they believe it would ultimately help the other person. This explains why we sometimes make friends or loved ones feel bad if we think the emotion could be useful in to achieving a goal, says López-Pérez.

Choosing The Right Emotions

For example, if a friend or coworker is procrastinating on getting work done—ultimately putting their job at risk—confronting the person by trying to evoke fear could kick them into gear, says López-Pérez.


Certain emotions can be helpful for certain goals, says López-Pérez. “For instance, feeling anger could be helpful to confront someone who has cheated, and fear can be helpful to escape from a very dangerous situation,” she says. “By inducing those emotions in others we may maximize their chances of achieving these goals.”

Managers can use this tactic at work to motivate their teams, but it’s important to know which emotions would be beneficial for the goal to achieve, says López-Pérez. “For instance, if the aim is maximizing collaboration then affect worsening is not going to work as we know that happiness is actually the right emotion to achieve this goal,” she says.

Proceed With Caution

More studies need to be done to understand how best to induce negative emotions, says López-Pérez. “It’s possible that the personality of the person receiving the negative emotion may modulate the obtained effect,” she says. “Also, it is important to actually know whether the person needs extra help to achieve the goal or not. For instance, if an employee is already trying to confront a competitor maybe the manager does not need to induce more anger in his employee.”

For now, use the Golden Rule as your guide. Knowing what emotion is right for the person to achieve the goal involves a high level of emotional skills and many adults may still struggle with this, says López-Pérez. “A good way to overcome this is by putting themselves in the others’ shoes and learning more about emotions,” she says.