Yes! Why You Love Progress

The feeling of progress is very important to our well-being.

It is a source of gratification and self esteem, and can be a huge motivational force that propels us to take further action in whatever it is that we are aiming to succeed at doing. 

Scott Belsky in Making Ideas Happen mentions the waiting line analogy to illustrate that we all need to see incremental progress in our lives, in whatever we do.

Here’s Scott:

“If you find yourself in a long line of people waiting to get into a concert, you will notice that everyone keeps inching forward every few minutes as the line makes its slow advance.

But if the person immediately in front of you fails to move with the rest of the line, you will get frustrated. Even if you know that the person ahead of you will move to catch up with the line later on, you still get frustrated as you see the gap of space ahead growing.

Standing still and feeling no progress is difficult. You want to keep moving with the line in order to feel productive. The incremental movements in the line don’t get you there any faster, but they feel great and keep you willing to wait.”

In this post you’ll see how our need for progress shows up in funny situations and how it is used by modern companies to keep employee satisfaction levels high and employee frustration at bay.

You’ll also see that sometimes real-life improvements (whatever they may be, technological or otherwise) aren’t really improvements if they don’t gives us a sense that we are making progress.

Lastly you’ll see that maybe there’s an evolutionary explanation to why we love progress.

Idiot buttons

We simply love progress and it’s funny how our desire for progress can manifest itself in the most unassuming of all life situations.

Ever wondered about the secret button at pedestrian crossings?

You have to wait for the green light but you press the button hoping to… exert a little bit of personal influence on the situation? Accelerate the process and possibly wait less?

What about elevator ‘Door Close’ buttons?

You go into a lift and press the Door Close button but the…the door doesn’t close.

Nothing happens.

Do these buttons even work?


The sad truth is that they don’t (although a friend of mine told me that buttons at crossings do in fact work in the Netherlands and that modern housing developments are increasingly equipping elevators with Door Close buttons that also work.)

But why would someone put a Door Close button in a lift if it doesn’t even work?

There’s a lot of psychology underlying the reason these buttons are disabled, ranging from assuming a sense of autonomy or behaving in line with social norms, to usurping personal control in the situation.

But perhaps the most fundamental reason pertains to experiencing feelings of progress.

Whether it is handing in a laboratory report, finishing our taxes, or pushing a Door Close button – it is satisfying to feel you are making progress.

Progress in the workplace

Although it’s humorous to talk about ‘idiot buttons’ and how they have been solely invented to give us the illusion of progress, the widespread awareness of our inherent need for progress has given companies an easy way out, if you will, to openly appreciate their employees.

Dan Ariely in his book Behavioural Economics Saved My Dog touches upon the illusion of progress in this respect:

“Widespread recognition of the need for progress explains why so many companies have invented titles and intermediate position for management types (officer, executive, chief, vice president, senior vice president, deputy CEO, etc.).

In a gamification-like approach companies want their employees to feel that they are making progress and moving ahead even when these stops are not very meaningful.”

Any progress, however incremental and however minuscule in the grander scheme of employment is enough to put employee frustration at bay and contribute to levels of overall employee satisfaction.

Progress at the airport

So it appears that any sort of progress has big effect on our mood and overall well-being.

But there are two sides to the same coin.

Although we might love progress, we don’t necessarily hate the exact opposite – that is, we don’t hate a lack of progress.

Rather, what we can’t stomach is idleness.

Social scientists and behavioural economists such as Dan Ariely call this phenomenon aversion to idleness and recounts an interesting story to illustrate this in practice.

Here’s Dan:

“A while ago there was an optimisation engineer working for an airline, and he realised that some carousels were close to some gates, and others were close to other gates.

He decided to optimise which carousel the luggage arrived on, such that the luggage from each flight would be delivered on the carousel closest to where the plane landed.

Before this algorithm was created, travellers would get off the plane and walk such a long way that sometimes their luggage would be waiting for them on the carousel.

After the new system was implemented, the carousel was much closer and people would walk just a short distance, find the carousel, and wait a bit for their luggage.

People hated this new system because they were spending some of their time standing in one place waiting for their luggage (and to make things worse, maybe also wondering if their luggage was lost or not).

This idleness was so unpleasant that people complained and the airline discarded this efficient algorithm.”

The new algorithm stripped the people of their way of taking control over the situation, making much-loved progress, and focusing on the task at hand by walking to the carousel.

By waiting around at the closer carousels, the lack of productivity was too much to bear. In the absence of any progress, they started to worry and ruminate, conjuring up thousands of potential scenarios of what may have happened to their luggage.

“By worrying, I am doing my bit” is what some people would say.

For some people, worrying and ruminating is perceived as an intriguing form of progress.

You could even argue that people worry, ruminate and use their imagination to conjure up potential scenarios and solutions to subconsciously feel a sense of progress in a situation when there isn’t any.

After all – when you ruminate, it’s like your mind is spinning.

Spinning is movement.

Movement is progress.

Evolutionary explanation

Why do we love progress and hate idleness?

From an evolutionary standpoint, it was imperative that our predecessors kept progressing, kept evolving, kept proliferating because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to survive in an ever-evolving environment full of other ever-evolving people.

In short, if you stopped progressing and adapting millennia ago – you’d be left behind, you’d fail to gain a reproductive advantage over other better-equipped members of the species, and your genes would be unceremoniously weeded out of existence.

This idea is referred to as the Red Queen Hypothesis.

Embedded in the deepest darkest corridors of the most ancient and primitive parts of brain is the inherent need for progress – a survival mechanism.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.



4 thoughts on “Yes! Why You Love Progress

  1. LOL it’s as if I was reading about myself in regards to the first example 🙂 Well,at least some time ago.Nowadays I think more practical about those situation, like, if I can’t change it-my frustration won’t do the trick either.So,let’s say I’m calmer, and now only watch how others get upset.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly – you reframe the issue in a way that benefits you (and your emotional health :P). When I’m in a queue or on the train, I frame it as an opportunity to read so that I don’t feel that I’m wasting time and I keep frustration at bay. Moral of the story? If you’re in a queue and can’t do anything it – do something about it (through framing). Thanks for your comment Kate!


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