Don't Count Your Chickens...

by thomblake1 min read17th Jun 20099 comments

3

Heuristics & Biases
Personal Blog

A blog post by Derek Sivers links to evidence that stating one's goals makes one less likely to accomplish them.

Excerpt:

Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you're less motivated to do the hard work needed.

Link: Shut up! Announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them.

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Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.

Let's suppose this is true.

Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.

This does not follow. There is no evidence on which way causality runs. Maybe people who are more likely to succeed, and hence confident of success, don't bother to announce their plans.

This study was already covered in a recent top-level post, wasn't it?

So it was - I always manage to miss those.

The one sentence summary is a very surprising result. The article made a little more sense when it talked about announcing "satisfactions" (like "I've just bought running shoes, so my plan to run more is going well") versus "dissatisfactions" (like "I really need to run more now that I've got these shoes").

I predict that there will be a strong interaction with type of goal. If it's a goal that can be fudged, like "I'm going to eat less", then probably telling your friends you're going to eat less will cause you not to do it because you've already gotten the status boost and no one can really call you on whether you've succeeded. If it's a goal where completion is obvious, like "I'm going to go back to college", then telling your friends would be a public committment that puts you under pressure to follow through.

Possibly related: Trying to Try

If it's a goal where completion is obvious, like "I'm going to go back to college", then telling your friends would be a public committment that puts you under pressure to follow through.

Pressure to follow through doesn't always mean you'll follow through; sometimes, it means you won't, specifically because of the pressure!

Some people rebel against pressure, even self-applied pressure. Other people crack under it. And some link the negative affect of the pressure to the tasks they need to perform, conditioning themselves to not work on the task at all.

I see the last kind most often, but the others happen too. And I imagine there might be other ways to use pressure to fail, that I haven't seen yet.

All the books say to tell people when you stop smoking - to allow for peer pressure effects. I think that way is more common.

All the books say to tell people when you stop smoking

Just because all the books say it, doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. There are three major confounding factors in self-help literature:

  1. People repeat ideas that sound good

  2. Some procedures are shibboleths or survivor-bias filters. That is, if you're willing to tell people you've quit, it's likely correlated with your actual judgment of your ability to do so. Thus, the procedure gets credit for success, and the person who can't bring themselves to do it gets the blame for failure.

  3. There are at least two major divisions of people who respond differently to self-help advice; the ones I dub "naturally struggling" and "naturally successful". Techniques aimed at the latter can actually do more harm than good when used by the former... and there's now research that shows positive thinking can actually hurt your outlook -- a result I've previously predicted in my writings.

I consider any setup that encourages a naturally struggling person to compare their behavior against an ideal, with negative consequences for deviation, to be the equivalent of prescribing bar time as a cure for alcoholism!

A naturally struggling person already compares their behavior to ideals of perfection, and beats themselves up internally for every minor deviation. They need less of that, not more.

Here's the kind of advice I mean:

"Tell people that you're trying to quit. Don't hide your attempt because you're afraid people will see you fail. Most people know how hard it is to quit smoking and that many smokers have to try several times before they succeed. Support can help you quit smoking, and experts recommend getting support from friends, family, and coworkers."

It is true that ideas that sound good get passed around - but also ideas that are counter-intuitive and not obvious get passed around too - since they make the teller of the idea appear to be smart.

In the case of smoking I don't think there can be much doubt - getting help definitely helps, and to get help you have to announce your goals - not keep them secret. Is getting support from others beneficial for many goals? Probably yes, for goals of any size. So, I advise taking this advice with multiple pinches of salt.

I would like to be able to distinguish between 'getting support' and 'finding ways to make myself anticipate shame at failure'. They certainly feel different from the inside. I find the motivation from public commitment to be useful in the short term (eg. a night or two of work, tops) but actually counter-productive in the longer term. On the other hand, 'support' I associate with encouragement, and the knowledge that there are other people on my 'team'. That I find useful in the longer term.