Episode 5: What is the importance of understanding collective behaviour and group level goals?

17 Jan 2022

Dr. Olya Bryksina research focuses on goals. Everything from personal goals to large societal goals. She wants to know what motivates us towards attaining those goals and what can deter us. Currently, Bryksina has been examining different types of public health messaging during the covid-19 pandemic. She wants to learn which health messages are more persuasive in achieving the overall goal of limiting the spread of the virus.

On this episode the research question is, “What is the importance of understanding collective behaviour and group level goals?” 

AUDREY GORDON: Good afternoon and thank you for joining us today. I want to start by thanking all the Manitobans for their extraordinary efforts to roll up their sleeves, not once but twice to get vaccinated.

BRENT ROUSSIN: I’m urging the more than 177,000 Manitoban’s who have not yet have been immunized to make an appointment today.

JOSS REIMER: This is about relationship building. This is about trust. This is about people feeling that their questions are being answered.

AUDREY GORDON: We are rolling out materials every day. Individuals tend to change their minds and their decision about the vaccine by talking with family and friends.

BRENT ROUSSIN: And it continues to be up to us to make a difference to bring down these numbers to bring down the strain on the acute care system. Through this collective action, through our collective practice of the fundamentals we’ll see these numbers continue to decline we’ll see our vaccine rates continue to climb.


OLYA BRYKSINA: It’s become abundantly clear that we need to understand how people strive towards group level goals. Because some goals can only be framed… flattening the curve, reaching herd immunity. The pandemic, in general. It’s not your own individual health. Right? It’s everybody’s health     it becomes everybody’s problem. It’s a group level problem. It’s group level goal sort of at its essence.

KENT DAVIES: That’s Dr. Olya Bryksina, Associate Professor of Marketing in the Department of Business and Administration at The University of Winnipeg.  As an expert in the field of consumer behavior, Bryksina hopes that her research will help others gain new understanding into what motivates people. Her primary focus is on goals. Everything from personal goals to larger societal goals. She wants to know what motivates us towards attaining those goals and what can deter us. Currently Bryksina’s research has been examining different types of public health messaging during the covid-19 pandemic; studying which health messages are more persuasive in achieving the overall goal of limiting the spread of the virus.

On this Episode the research question is what is the importance of understanding collective behaviour and group level goals?

From the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre, you’re listening to Research Question- amplifying the impact of discovery of researchers of the University of Winnipeg.

Question. Have you ever made a new year’s resolution like saving money or losing weight only to find that your motivation fizzles – even after you’ve made significant strides towards that personal goal of yours? Well, Dr. Olya Bryksina has uncovered one possible explanation for why that is. According to a 2017 study Bryksina co-authored with Dr. Rajesh Manchanda of the University of Manitoba titled, “How goal progress influences regulatory focus in goal pursuit,” when pursing a new goal you will first focus on achievement as a motivator but as you get closer to reaching your goal you may become more fixated on avoiding negative outcomes. This results in a change of motivation which can ultimately lead to you to never attaining your goal.[i] We’ll explain this theory in a little more in detail but first, some context. This study uses a conceptual framework called regulatory focus theory.[ii] This theory considers people to be fundamentally promotion oriented or prevention oriented when it comes to making decisions in the pursuit of a goal. According to the theory formulated by Columbia University psychology professor E. Tory Higgins, promotion-focused self-regulation is concerned with accomplishment; focusing on the pursuit of wishes and aspirations. While prevention-focused self-regulation is concerned with safety and security needs and is focused on meeting duties and obligations. Our preference toward obtaining gains or avoiding losses influences our motivations, which in turn affect our behavioral choices. Bryksina explains how she first came across this theory during a PHD seminar and how it led to her own ideas regarding goal pursuit.

OLYA BRYKSINA: I gained this interest by reading articles and just realizing that it just appeals to me on some maybe personal or some intuitive level. I remember we were in a PHD seminar in my first year of our PHD program at Asper and we had this seminar that all students have to take. It was a PHD seminar in consumer behaviour. What we did is we pretty much read several articles from every key research area in consumer behavior. So, we read about emotions. We read about persuasion. We read about status signalling. And then there was this one week where we read about motivation and this theory that I started working on as a PHD student called regulatory focus theory. The basic principle that people pursue gains and avoid losses and that gives rise to these two motivational systems called promotion focus and prevention focus. And so, that simplicity of that theory it fascinated me. And so, I, you know. I read all the articles that we had to read, and I came up with this idea.

KENT DAVIES: Bryksina’s idea was that the regulatory focus of a goal is not always fixed and the motivation of an individual toward their goal may change through the course of pursuing that goal.

OLYA BRYKSINA: In terms of how people go about their choices, decisions, goal pursuit, depending on which system motivates them tends to be quite different because seeking a gain and avoiding a loss are actually inherently different things.

KENT DAVIES: Bryksina predicted that as individuals drew closer to reaching their goal they would switch from a promotion motivation to a prevention motivation mindset.

OLYA BRYKSINA: I think as you move through your goal pursuit your regulatory focus changes from pursuing gains in the earlier stages of goal pursuit to avoiding losses in later stages of goal pursuit. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it would be so. Like it was kind of a hunch. Imagine you have to lose ten pounds versus you’re almost there and you only have two to go. Wouldn’t you feel different about how you see your goal? And how you, sort of what motivates you? And how you view your motivational process?

KENT DAVIES: So, an example would be you want to run a half marathon. In the first months, you’re able to focus on the physical progress you’re making like not being out breath, having more energy, losing weight but later in the year your focus may switch to the desire of completing the race in a good time without collapsing. At that point your motivation changes to focusing on negative outcomes. According to Bryksina this would account for why so many individuals don’t reach their goals.

OLYA BRYKSINA: So, if at the end of goal pursuit, we have to rely on a prevention focused system to keep making progress and the system is less developed because we’re not socialized to properly engage it. That explains a lot of motivational loss in later stages of goal pursuit and that also explains why people start projects and don’t finish them.

KENT DAVIES: Initially, Bryksina’s theory was not well received.

OLYA BRYKSINA: Full confession that did not get much traction with my professor. It was pretty much shut down and he was like, “Olya you should like go home and think about something else. Like not your best work.”

KENT DAVIES: But Bryksina didn’t give up on her theory. She was convinced there was something to it.    

OLYA BRYKSINA: Yeah, the more I thought about it the more I kind of thought, “no, no, I’m going to test this. I’m going to test this.” And then later on I pitched this to my advisor, and he was like, “well go and test it.” And so, I started testing the idea and I was getting support for this idea. And as you know? As some amateur PHD student, it was a rough, rocky road at first. Like, you run a study. You get support for your hypothesis. You realize your manipulations are flawed. Your study is flawed. You have to redo it.  You know? You ask yourself, “well what’s the underlying mechanism of this process?” You really can’t answer because you really don’t know what’s going on.

KENT DAVIES: Bryksina and her research collaborators conducted five experiments with over six hundred participants and found that their prediction was correct. Motivation switched from promotion to prevention as study participants made progress on their goals.[iii]

OLYA BRYKSINA: So that took a few years of running studies, and thinking and reading, and eventually turned into a more concrete, concise project which was part of my dissertation and then ultimately led to getting published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. And I got a lot of media attention, and I did several radio and TV appearances.

KENT DAVIES: Long before she was conducting research studies and publishing articles, Bryksina knew she wanted to be an academic.

OLYA BRYKSINA: So, I grew up in Russia in a city called Novosibirsk. It’s the third largest city in Russia in Siberia. Geographically, it’s close to Mongolia border. And it’s very ethnically diverse. It’s very cold in the winter. So, it’s actually quite similar to Winnipeg. And yeah, it was a lot of fun growing up there. When I was a small child, my school held an exchange program with Canadian schools. So, I actually visited Vancouver, British Columbia three times at age eight, ten and twelve. Got some cultural exposure to Canada and Canadians. Really enjoyed the experience. Then when I was seventeen. I was actually a university student in Russia and my mom got a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Manitoba. So, my mom was also a scientist. And so, she had suggested to me, “hey, why don’t you come along with me?” Because I was seventeen, I could come with her as a dependent. And yeah, I came here and applied to university and started going to school. When I was in university, I would like tutor my fellow students. I was majoring in economics at the U of W. So, explaining different theories in a way that was palatable, funny and more comprehensible to an average student. And, I just always felt I was good at it. I thought that yeah, I wanted to be an academic. I felt really comfortable in an academic environment. I enjoyed talking to professors. Because my mom was a scientist too, I enjoyed going to her conferences with here and kind of being in that environment but I was very young and so I really couldn’t put my finger on what is it that I wanted to do. I just knew I liked being here and I like this. But I didn’t quite know like what I wanted to pursue or study. Economics was fun and interesting to learn. I did not necessarily see myself doing research but I always had that passion for academia. When I graduated with my masters from McGill. I actually moved back to Winnipeg and I had a regular job. But I started teaching as a sessional instructor. Michael Benarroch was here still then and some of the other… former my professors, now colleagues in the department would be running the scheduling and I would apply. And they would be, “yeah, Olya applied! Let’s let her teach this course.” So, I kind of got in somewhat smoothly to the whole teaching realm and I really enjoyed doing it. Even though I was tired from eight hours of work. I always looked forward to, you know? Coming to school and teaching a class almost feeling re-energized. And so, that kind of also reinforced, you know what? If you’re liking this so much maybe that’s where you should be and make this a more permanent gig.  That how I started looking into different PHD options and like where am I transitioning from, having a masters in economics because I really didn’t want to do economics for my PHD. So, kind of business was sort of natural progression or segue from that. As I started my PHD and I started reading and going to research presentations, and you know talking in seminars and reading studies; that’s when I knew like, yeah that’s the right choice for me. I want to do research and kind of develop my interests from there. The rest is history.

KENT DAVIES: Originally published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Dr. Bryksina’s seminal research into how goal progress influences regulatory focus is now essential reading on campuses across Canada featured in the 8th edition of the popular Canadian textbook, Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having, and Being.[iv]

OLYA BRYKSINA: Yeah, it was a process of discovery. It was like just getting fascinating by some line of research and kind of like trying to jump on it and to see if there is something I could test that I could contribute to that. For several years I did research primarily in that regulatory focus theory umbrella. So, I think I have a total of four papers. Then I wanted to broaden my focus.

KENT DAVIES: Bryksina has made other research contributions, publishing multiple papers on consumer behavior – further examining how we make our choices when it comes to goal pursuit.[v] Her findings have far-reaching implications for marketers, project managers, public policy makers, and psychologists who have routinely cited Bryksina in journals, news articles and blogs.[vi]

OLYA BRYKSINA: And I think that’s the beauty of basic research, right? It’s like, you know perhaps marketing and business journalism more apply this discipline and people often do start with a practical question but my mind works like a pure psychologist who happens to do research in an area that is applicable to consumption and business and that type of thing. But I tend to start from an intellectual curiosity perspective, not necessarily to solve this practical problem perspective. And then, my intellectual curiosity in finding answers lends itself to solving some practical problem. But practical problems was not the starting point. And so, I think because I approached research like that. It ends up being very applicable in a lot of different areas, right? Because you can take that same principal and apply it in so many different areas from personal goals to consumption to advertising to sports psychology, right? Because it boils down to the same basic human psychological principals.

KENT DAVIES: Bryksina’s now focused applying her research to bigger goals. Over the course of the covid-19 pandemic, we’ve heard phrases like, ‘flattening the curve,’ ‘stay home, stay safe,’ ‘protect yourself, protect others.’ A lot of attention has been placed on what kind of public health messaging is more effective when encouraging people to practice good social distancing or to go get vaccinated.[vii]  Bryksina’s latest research project has been examining different approaches to public health messaging. By applying a goal-level view of message persuasion, Bryksina is asking if individuals are more motivated by self-benefit or group-benefit messaging.

OLYA BRYKSINA: It’s a group level goal which requires input from all members of society to achieve this goal and stick to this goal right? Often times individual level goal pursuit resembles group level goal pursuit because individual actors involved in it still rely on their own individual motivation systems. But sort of one of the core differences between individual and group goals is that with individual goals, you’re the only person responsible for making goal progress and for success or failure. With a group level goal, you’re just one of the many actors who are responsible for success or failure and for making goal progress. With individual level goals we often engage in what is called social comparisons when it comes to assessing other’s progress. So, if other people make more progress, it makes us feel like we’re making less progress. In some cases that can motivate us to step up and do better. With group goals it’s a different story. So, I’m looking at what happens at the course of motivation towards a group level goal as people make progress. So, say as vaccination uptake increases what happens on an individual level to a person’s motivation to go and get the jab if they haven’t done so. In individual level goal pursuit, it’s been shown very clearly and consistently that as goal attainment approaches people become more motivated and that’s because every unit of effort of progress covers proportionately greater part of the remaining goal distance.

KENT DAVIES: This is called the goal gradient effect.

OLYA BRYKSINA: Right, the goal gradient effect is this fancy term for individual motivation increasing as an individual approaches goal attainment. So, it’s motivating. However, with group level goals there is another process that is working kind of counter to this and that is a problem that every discipline has its own term for it. Probably the most well known one is ‘free riding.’ And that’s a term coined by economists. The ‘free riding’ problem is where people get the benefits without putting in any effort.

KENT DAVIES: Free riding may explain some level of vaccine hesitancy here in Manitoba. Especially during the early stages of the vaccine roll out when provincial leaders were touting a re-opening plan as a reward for Manitoban’s who got the jab and maintained good social distancing practices.

OLYA BRYKSINA: Yeah, because if those loosening of restrictions apply to everybody regardless of you know how much effort they had put towards achieving herd immunity. Then the closer you get to achieving that goal the more likely it becomes that it will be attained without your input. So, where as, yes there’s probably some motivational increase that is happening with the goal gradient. There is also some motivational decline that happens with this expectation of free riding. And what that can do is that can actually make people more reluctant to go ahead and engage in this behavior. If they’re holding their goal at the group level because they expect, “meh, you know I’ll let somebody else you know go get the vaccine, get a sore arm, and potentially side effects, that will be good, I’ll just stay put and sort of expect the pandemic to go away and you know reap the benefits without putting in my own efforts.” So, I think one of the ways to counter act the free riding is actually our government is to some extent doing it now with QR codes and vaccination status; is to pretty much preclude people from enjoying the benefits of goal attainment if they have not put in the effort. Because once you eliminate the possibility of free riding, then the motivational trajectory begins to resemble very closely individual goal pursuits because you can only achieve that outcome if you put in that effort. So, in some of the studies I have conducted I effectively eliminated that flattening of motivational trajectory. So, some people aren’t going to like me for saying this but vax passports from a motivational standpoint are a very helpful thing to try and eliminate this sluggish effect on motivation that can happen towards the end of goal pursuit. Yeah.

KENT DAVIES: The results of Bryksina’s studies demonstrate that when a health goal is held at a group level like ‘flattening the curve’ or reaching a certain vaccine benchmark – group benefit messages like, ‘don’t spread the virus’ is more persuasive than self-benefit messages like, ‘don’t get the virus.’

OLYA BRYKSINA: When we started testing this. The good thing is we found support for the hypothesis that we were testing but it was very curious that the effect was much stronger in group level goal conditions then in an individual level goal condition. Intuitively, I probably predict in the individual level goal conditional effect should be stronger. This individual level goals will probably be very strong that will take over and we’ll see a really big effect in the individual condition, maybe a smaller effect hopefully in the group condition. What we found is that effect in that group level goal condition was huge. Very large effect size. Very high, you know, statistical significance. And then in the individual level goal condition. We got you know the reversal of the pattern we were looking but in some studies, it was marginally significant. In some studies, not significant. And so, still kind of trying to wrap our why that is happening. It could be that it’s a situation where you know health care moves people away from that sort of self-centred angle and puts them more into caregiver sort of position somewhat naturally. So, other benefit messages don’t demotivate people from engaging in behavior because people still see progress for another person as a very positive thing.

KENT DAVIES: Overall, the studies found that group level messaging works better than individual level messaging and it’s not just Bryksina’s research that indicates that. Other studies have show that we’re motivated to get vaccinated or practice good social distancing not only because of social enforcement or peer pressure but because of our desire to make individual choices for the public good.[viii] And campaigns centred around, ‘helping loved ones’ as the lead message as opposed to ‘helping yourself,’ test higher, tapping into people’s desire to protect and support their family and friends.[ix]

OLYA BRYKSINA: Interestingly in a group level goal condition we see this huge effect size with people being unmotivated to engage in the behaviour when it benefits them on the group level goals and being highly motivated to engage in the behaviour when it benefits other people. So, we think… it’s not only interesting from a theoretical perspective but it’s very notable from a practical standpoint.

KENT DAVIES: So, this brings us back to our research question. What is the importance of understanding collective behaviour and group level goals? For Dr. Olya Bryksina, it’s more important than ever that we understand what motivates people especially towards societal goals for the collective good.

OLYA BRYKSINA: I don’t think that enough work has been done to actually meaningfully differentiate the two. And to identify at a conceptual level how different level goals differ from one another. What that implies for goal pursuit. For individual efforts and so on. Because, for public health, public policy makers, it is very important to get their messaging right. And if you know? If people, maybe people hold a view over behaviour as only being beneficial to others or only being beneficial to the self and it’s kind of difficult to frame that behaviour in one way or the other then. You know? The messaging needs to really match the level of goal to the appropriate frame of the message. Flattening the curve is inherently a group level goal. In those cases, it is very important to frame behaviours as benefiting others because as framing them as benefiting the self can actually demotivate people from those behaviors. So, and this is definitely my last point, is that it is very practically valuable with the pandemic and even post pandemic. I think that this experience really had to shift peoples thinking in understanding sort of interdependency between all agents. First in the economy but also how we’re all intertwined just as nations and as human beings in being able to live the life we live. And so, I think going forward this idea of collective effort and group effort will become will become even more practically relevant.

KENT DAVIES: You’ve been listening to Research Question. Research Question is produced by the University of Winnipeg Research Office and Oral History Centre.

The University of Winnipeg is located on Treaty 1 Territory, the heartland of the Metis people.

Written, narrated and produced by Kent Davies.

Our theme music is by Lee Rosevere.

For more information regarding Olya Bryksina’s research publications, please see the selected readings section on our Research Question episode page.

For more on University of Winnipeg research, go to uwinnipeg.ca/research

For more information on the University of Winnipeg oral history centre, and the work that we do, go to oralhistorycentre.ca.

Thanks for listening.



[i] Olya Bullard and Rajesh V. Manchanda (2017), “How Goal Progress Influences Regulatory Focus in Goal Pursuit,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 27(3), 302–317.

[ii] Higgins, E. Tory. “Regulatory Focus Theory.” In Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume 1, 483-504. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2012.

[iii] Olya Bullard and Rajesh V. Manchanda (2017), “How Goal Progress Influences Regulatory Focus in Goal Pursuit,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 27(3), 302–317.

[iv] Michael R. Solomon, Katherine White, and Dahren William Dahl. Consumer behavior: Buying, having, and being. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2017.

[v] Olya Bryksina. “When and why choices for others diverge from consumers’ own salient goals.” Journal of Consumer Psychology 30, no. 4 (2020): 579-597; Bryksina, Olya. “Can Side-By-Side Comparisons Compromise Decision Outcomes? a Construal-Level View of Evaluation-Mode Effects.” ACR North American Advances (2020); Bullard, Olya, Rajesh V. Manchanda, and Anastasia Sizykh. “The “holding-out” effect: How regulatory focus influences preference formation for sequentially presented choice alternatives.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 8, no. 3 (2017): 284-291.

[vi] Society for Consumer Psychology. “The secret to staying motivated.” ScienceDaily. April 3, 2017. Accessed December 9, 2021; Tiffani Sherman, “Having Trouble Staying Motivated? Science Unlocks a Possible Reason,” July 25, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2021; Leigh Buchanan, “Losing Motivation? Research Says You’re Probably Engaging the Wrong System,” Inc, March 2, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2021;  Ian Froese, “An apple for me, some chocolate for you: U of W researcher looks at how gift giving can be an act of sabotage,” CBC News, August 3, 2019. Accessed November 12, 2021.

[vii] Jay J. Van Bavel, Katherine Baicker, Paulo S. Boggio, Valerio Capraro, Aleksandra Cichocka, Mina Cikara, Molly J. Crockett et al. “Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response.” Nature human behaviour 4, no. 5 (2020): 460-471; Hume, Susannah and John, Peter and John, Peter and Sanders, Michael and Stockdale, Emma, Hume, Susanne, Peter John, Michael Sanders, and Emma Stockdale. “Nudge in the Time of Coronavirus: The Compliance to Behavioural Messages during Crisis.” Journal of Behavioral Public Administration 4, no. 2 (March 20, 2021). Raina M. Merchant, Eugenia C. South, and Nicole Lurie. “Public health messaging in an era of social media.” JAMA 325, no. 3 (2021): 223-224;  David A. Broniatowski, Mark Dredze, and John W. Ayers. “First Do No Harm”: Effective Communication About COVID-19 Vaccines.” (2021): 1055-1057; Bernadette Hyland-Wood, John Gardner, Julie Leask, and Ullrich KH Ecker. “Toward effective government communication strategies in the era of COVID-19.” Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 8, no. 1 (2021): 1-11.

[viii] Erez Yoeli, and David Rand. “A checklist for prosocial messaging campaigns such as COVID-19 prevention appeals.” April 17, 2020.

[ix] Hallsworth, M., S. Mirpuri, and C. Toth. “Four messages that can increase uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines: using large-scale testing to identify effective vaccine messaging.The Behavioural Insights Team. 2021. Accessed November 12, 2021.