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Dr Raj Persaud Consultant Psychiatrist


Some politicians and leaders are characterised as ‘big picture’ persons – they are more focused on the ‘big picture’ of leading a country or an organisation as opposed to the fine details of day to day concerns. This ‘big picture’ personality type is often pleaded by a boss or prime minister, and its wheeled out after some gross cock-up, as an excuse for why a leader didn’t spot a problem earlier, that was going to develop into a full blown disaster.


‘Oh I’m a Big Picture Person’, they say as the flounce out of the stunned press conference, which is kind of code for ‘Don’t bother me with these inane small details, can’t you see I’m busy charting the global direction of this company/country/family?’


Perhaps the most celebrated ‘big picture’ politician of recent times was Ronald Reagan, former President of the USA. Professor Charles Bonser of Indiana University, USA, reflecting shortly after Reagan’s death, echoed what many thought when he said; “Ronald Reagan was a big-picture person. I don’t think he was a detail person,” Bonser also added, “He was criticized sometimes for maybe not being as up on the details as he might be. Jimmy Carter was a great detail person, but I don’t think he was as good with the big picture.”


Tony Blair it is said was ‘big picture’ while Margaret Thatcher was more ‘small details’.


In terms of running a household a ‘big picture’ parent might be concerned with how a child is generally getting on at school, while a more ‘small details’ adult would be focused on the basic mechanics of ensuring hockey sticks, homework and pencil cases are actually in the school bag, as children set off in the morning. A ‘small details’ person might get tense if the hockey stick is intermittently forgotten at home, while a ‘big picture’ parent could say what does it matter given these hockey scores are generally so good?


Psychologists Yuna Ferguson and Kennon Sheldon at the University of Missouri in the USA have recently published some fascinating research, where they suggest one neglected key to success in attaining difficult goals (such as losing weight or doing better at exams) is correctly matching a ‘big picture’ as opposed to ‘small details’ approach, depending on psychologically where you are on your journey to success.


They venture an interesting point which is that much failure to attain goals is down to a mismatch between the ‘big picture’ as opposed to ‘small details’ approach. Both are necessary but only in the right place and time depending on where you are in your motivational journey.


Ferguson and Sheldon point out that someone facing a difficult exam, like a student, is described by psychologists as ‘autonomously motivated’ to pursue academic excellence, when they have an intrinsic desire to learn and become an educated person. In contrast, a student who suffers more from ‘controlled motivation’ attends classes and completes homework, mainly because they want to avoid annoyed parents. Really they are making efforts because they’re being controlled by external factors – it’s not coming from within. Remove the annoyed parents and the student will immediately stop trying.


Psychological research finds over and over again that the ‘autonomously’ motivated are more likely to persist and finally succeed in areas of life as diverse as passing exams, weight loss, careers and job satisfaction. Ferguson and Sheldon observe that most of us start off with a controlled motivation – the doctor tells us we’ll die or something terrible will happen to us if we don’t give up smoking or lose weight – so we start because of an external pressure. But as we get into running or being more fit – we move to doing it for internal or intrinsic reasons – we do it for its own sake. We ‘internalise’ the drive – as psychologists say.


The contribution Ferguson and Sheldon are making with their research is to show that one previously misunderstood secret of success is; if you are still at the more ‘controlled’ level of your motivational journey – you need to be a ‘small details’ person, whereas as you migrate into becoming a more internalised motivator – you need to switch to becoming a ‘big picture’ person.


So at the start of taking on a new enterprise individuals may perceive a behaviour (let’s take baking a cake) to be composed of a  set of mechanistic, concrete steps (e.g., combining flour, sugar, eggs, mixing together, then putting the mixture into a heated oven). Ferguson and Sheldon refer to this as the ‘‘how’’ of the behaviour. For a more expert baker it’s unlikely they are dwelling on these ‘small details’ and instead they are bound to be more ‘big picture’ – or the ‘‘why’’ of the behaviour. In other words, producing an award-winning cake for the baking competition.


Ferguson and Sheldon argue overcoming multifarious difficulties inherent in achieving difficult goals involves being ‘small details’ at the start of a new enterprise (like taking up jogging) and getting more ‘big picture’ as you become more expert. This is also a transition from the ‘how’ to the ‘why’. What’s particularly intriguing about this approach is that doctors often intuitively go the opposite way when encouraging their patients to give up smoking or lose weight. They emphasise the ‘why’ at the start (to avoid lung cancer or heart attacks) and only later as patients struggle to achieve goals, get into the ‘why’.


Another way of putting Ferguson and Sheldon’s point of view is that once you know how to bake a cake or run or lose weight – the issue changes to why bother? This is a ‘big picture’ question. But before you can get there you need to establish that you have mastered how to do it in the first place – this is ‘small details’ territory.  




Should goal-strivers think about ‘‘why’’ or ‘‘how’’ to strive?

It depends on their skill level Motivation and Emotoion (2010) 34:253–265 Yuna L. Ferguson • Kennon M. Sheldon

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