The mouse, the cheese and the owl; a lesson in motivation when you’re feeling stuck.

Mickey Mouse may teach kids some great moral lessons once in a while, but when it comes to teaching us about human motivation, I have to hand it to another cartoon mouse. This cartoon mouse was the star in a psychological study that offers some interesting lessons for those of us who feel stuck in a rut in our personal lives.

In the study, researchers asked participants to help a cartoon mouse out of a maze, revealing useful lessons in how our brains respond to different circumstances. In one version of the test, the participants were asked to help the mouse get out of the maze toward a reward of cheese. In a second version, the participants were trying to help the cartoon mouse exit the maze to avoid a hovering owl.

After the maze exercises, participants were tested on how their moods and creative abilities were impacted by working to avoid something negative versus trying to obtain to something positive.

Those with a “promotion focus” (getting to the cheese) were tested to have more positive emotions, were more creative in subsequent tasks and were able to think more globally.

Those with a “prevention focus” (helping the mouse avoid the owl) were in more negative moods, were more focused on immediate details, creativity was weakened, options seemed closed down, and flexibility in responding to the next task was reduced. Even with a symbolic cartoon threat, they scored 50 percent lower than the scores of those who helped the mouse find the cheese.

This study leaves interesting points to ponder in terms of why a person might be feeling stuck. If life has pushed one into a cowering mode — survival… bracing against the recession… reacting to what life brings rather than striving for goals, then it’s reasonable to believe he or she won’t be as creative or flexible in terms of moving ahead. Sounds like a perfect formula for getting stuck in a rut, doesn’t it?

It’s also a perfect lesson in motivation. If we put our focus on positive goals and the proverbial brass ring, we are more likely to think creatively, see the bigger picture and be happier.

Chronological Blog, Positive Psychology, Shifting Your Perspective


  1. trevor

    Being left alone to get on with attaining ones goal helps because there is little distraction..
    But a 50% increase against a person doing it under pressure is a big number…
    It seems to indicating that a person under pressure from working a deadline has 50% less motivation… when there are though’s who say that deadlines motivates people to get the job done..
    who’s right?.. the owl or the cheese I ask!

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  4. Renee

    Wow! 50% difference in performance…wow!

    • Stuck-to-Stupendous

      Crazy, huh? I passed this info on to my work associates in regard to strategic planning — trying to plan for more proactive versus reactive stuff. However, a big part of our job in watchdogging is to react. No wonder we get grumpy sometimes.

  5. grace

    Interesting perspective! It’s so easy to get in a defensive crouch instead of stepping up and out for your life.

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