[LINK] Why You Should Keep Your Goals Secret

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Original Article [pdf]


When intentions go public: does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap?


New York University, Psychology Department, New York, NY 10003, USA. peter.gollwitzer@nyu.edu


Based on Lewinian goal theory in general and self-completion theory in particular, four experiments examined the implications of other people taking notice of one's identity-related behavioral intentions (e.g., the intention to read law periodicals regularly to reach the identity goal of becoming a lawyer). Identity-related behavioral intentions that had been noticed by other people were translated into action less intensively than those that had been ignored (Studies 1-3). This effect was evident in the field (persistent striving over 1 week's time; Study 1) and in the laboratory (jumping on opportunities to act; Studies 2 and 3), and it held among participants with strong but not weak commitment to the identity goal (Study 3). Study 4 showed, in addition, that 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.


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Announcing one's goals to the general public is harmful. But how about having a group of people with similar goals -- would sharing the goals inside the group harm too?

(My model here is based on human as a social animal. Scenario 1: You announce your goal. Others mostly ignore you; or give you token support, which you feel is not genuine. You get a feedback that your goal is not important for the group, so your brain lowers the goal priority. Scenario 2: You announce your goal in a supportive group; you get a feedback that the goal is important for the group; your brain raises the goal priority.)

For what it's worth I had already observed this effect. I am less likely to carry on with some plan if I talk about it to other people. Now I tend to just do what I have to, and only talk about it once it's done.

Part of the problem is I hate feeling pressured into doing something. Social commitment will, if anything, simply make me want to run away from what I just implicitly promised I'd do. Perhaps because I can never be sure whether I can achieve something : if I fail silently and nobody knows, it's ok. Less so if I told people about it. It feels better to run away from something (failing by choice) than failing for other reasons.

Also in some cases, just saying you plan to do something already feels like you've done something. Either because you count it as a step towards doing the whole thing (a step after which it feels more acceptable to take a break, which can last indefinitely long), either because you fantasized about it enough that you don't feel the need to implement it for real anymore.

This is really weak. Announcing a goal to friends and peers is vastly different than talking about it for a second to an interviewer. The sample sizes were unimpressive and the domain far too specific (only students, and at that only psychology and law students) for me to think this is worth generalizing or even strongly updating on. The 4th study is the most interesting one because it directly tests the underlying assumption, and supports it, but with a sample of 24 law students this isn't strong evidence.

it held among participants with strong but not weak commitment to the identity goal (Study 3).

That suggests to me that "strong commitment to the identity goal" is the sign of extrinsic motivation (I don't actually want to become a lawyer, but I say I do), whereas "weak commitment to the identity goal" is the sign of intrinsic motivation (I actually enjoy the law, and so should probably become a lawyer). The first group is doing it mostly for signalling- and so once they have confirmation that their signals have been received, they feel less need to send them.

I suspect that it's not the telling of the goal, but the feedback you get from your audience that changes your ability to put effort towards a goal.

Dopamine drives action and is highest when the desired outcome is most uncertain (probability ~0.5). IE, If you're uncertain of success, but think it's attainable this is when you're most motivated to work hard. Therefore, presumably a goal that someone is already working hard towards already has a perceived probability of success around 0.5.

If your interaction with others about your intentions raises your perceived probability of success, through say comments such as "that will be so easy for you, you'll do great" this will lower dopamine. Conversely, if people say "that's truly impossible- you're wasting your time" and you believe them, that will also lower dopamine and reduce effort.

If you want to help someone achieve their goals when they explain them, the best reaction is probably to help maintain their uncertainty of success or failure. For example "that will be really difficult, but I think you have a chance if you really work hard at it" is probably more helpful than "you're so smart, I have zero doubt that you'll achieve the goal."

If you're already working hard on a goal, it's probably better not to confide in others because you don't know how they will respond, and how that might influence your ability to remain motivated. If you do confide in someone who is usually encouraging, it wouldn't hurt to explain a real reason why the goal will be very difficult for you to achieve. I don't know why you'd confide in people who are usually discouraging...

Related articles leading to the same conclusion: zip it, Image vs. Impact.

I had already performed an update based on those. It looks even moreso now that that's the direction the winds of evidence are blowing.

Ah. So roughly like this: If you can convince people in advance that you can do it, and you find it satisfying for people to think you can do it, you've achieved half of your goals already and therefore have less cause to actually finish the project.

In this model, the effect will be less pronounced when the anouncer doesn't believe that the anouncees really see them as being bound to complete the project. This could be achieved in two ways; the anouncer hears them doubt, or imagines that they doubt. Give open doubt to naive dreamers to help them to avoid this trap.

I'll try and update my behavior accordingly.