Image vs. Impact: Can public commitment be counterproductive for achievement?

bypatrissimo10y28th May 200947 comments


The traditional wisdom says that publicly committing to a goal is a useful technique for accomplishment.  It creates pressure to fulfill one's claims, lest one lose status.  However, when the goal is related to one's identity, a recent study shows that public commitment may actually be counterproductive.  Nyuanshin posts:

    "Identity-related behavioral intentions that had been noticed by other people were translated into action less intensively than those that had been ignored. . . . when other people take notice of an individual's identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity."

    -- Gollwitzer at al (2009)

This empirical finding flies in the face of conventional wisdom about the motivational effects of public goal-setting, but rings true to my experience. Belief is, apparently, fungible -- when you know that people think of you as an x-doer, you afffirm that self-image more confidently than you would if you had only your own estimation to go on. [info]colinmarshall and myself have already become aware of the dangers of vanity to any non-trivial endeavor, but it's nice to have some empirical corroboration. Keep your head down, your goals relatively private, and don't pat yourself on the back until you've got the job done.

This matches my experience over the first year of The Seasteading Institute.  We've received tons of press, and I've probably spent as much time at this point interacting with the media as working on engineering.  And the press is definitely useful - it helps us reach and get credibility with major donors, and it helps us grow our community of interested seasteaders (it takes a lot of people to found a country, and it takes a mega-lot of somewhat interested people to have a committed subset who will actually go do it).

Yet I've always been vaguely uncomfortable about how much media attention we've gotten, even though we've just started progressing towards our long-term goals.  It feels like an unearned reward.  But is that bad?  I keep wondering "Why should that bother me?  Isn't it a good thing to be given extra help in accomplishing this huge and difficult goal?  Aren't unearned rewards the best kind of rewards?" This study suggests the answer.

My original goal was to actually succeed at starting new countries, but as a human, I am motivated by the status to be won in pursuit of this goal as well as the base goal itself.  I recognize this, and have tried to use it to my advantage, visualizing the joys of having achieved high status to motivate the long hours of effort needed to reach the base goal.  But getting press attention just for starting work on the base goal, rather than significant accomplishments towards it, short-circuits this motivational process.  It gives me status in return for just having an interesting idea (the easy part, at least for me) rather than moving it towards reality (the hard part), and helps affirm the self-image I strive for in return for creating the identity, rather than living up to it.

I am tempted to say "Well, since PR helps my goal, I shouldn't worry about being given status/identity too easily, it may be bad for my motivation but it is good for the cause", but that sounds an awful lot like my internal status craver rationalizing why I should stop worrying about getting on TV (Discovery Channel, Monday June 8th, 10PM EST/PST :) ).

My current technique is to try, inasmuch as I can, to structure my own reward function around the more difficult and important goals.  To cognitively reframe "I got media attention, I am affirming my identity and achieving my goals" as "I got media attention, which is fun and slightly useful, but not currently on the critical path."  To focus on achievement rather than recognition (internal standards rather than external ones, which has other benefits as well).  Not only in my thoughts, but also in public statements - to describe seasteading as "we're different because we're going to actually do it", so that actual accomplishment is part of the identity I am striving for.

One could suggest that OB/LW has this problem too - perhaps rewarding Eliezer with status for writing interesting posts allows him to achieve his identity as a rationalist with work that is less useful to his long-term goals than actually achieving FAI. However, I don't buy this.  I think raising the sanity waterline is a big deal, greater than FAI because it increases the resources available for dealing with FAI-like problems (ie converting a single present or future centimillionaire could lead to hiring multiple-Eliezer's worth of AI researchers).  Hence his public-facing work has direct positive impact.  And given this, while Eli's large audience may selfishly incent him towards public-facing work via the desire to seek status, it also increases the actual impact of his public-facing work since he reaches many people.

Also of relevance is the community in which one is achieving status.  Eliezer's OB/LW audience is largely self-selected rationalists, which might be good because it's the most receptive audience, or it might be restricting his message to an unnecessarily small niche, I'm not sure.  But for seasteading, I think there is a clear conflict between the most exciting and most useful audiences.  What we need to succeed is a small group of highly committed and talented people, which is better served by very focused publicity, yet intuitively it feels like more of a status accomplishment to reach a broader audience (y'know, one with lots of hot babes - that's why guys seek status, after all).  (This is a downside to LW being a sausage-fest - less incentive for men to status-seek through community-valued accomplishments if it won't get them chicks.)

This issue reminds me of our political system, which rewards people for believably promising to achieve great things rather than for accomplishing them.  After all, which gets a Congressman more status in our society - the title of "Senator", or their voting record and the impact of the bills they helped craft and pass?  Talk about image over impact!

Anyway, your thoughts on motivation, identity, public commitment, and publicity are welcomed.