TED for Runners: Should You Announce Your Goals on Social Media?

Ideas worth spreading ... among runners!
Ideas worth spreading … among runners!

Today I’m bringing you our second installment of TED for Runners. Last time Salty shared a TED talk that helped us reframe prerace anxiety. This time I’m sharing Derek Siver’s TED Talk about goal-setting. If you’d like to watch the TED Talk before reading the post, you can find it at the bottom of the post, above the comments.

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Imagine that you’ve just come up with a big running goal that you’re super-excited about.

What should you do to ensure the greatest likelihood of success for yourself?

A. Announce your goal to your friends and on your blog so you would be held accountable for your actions.

B. Program it into your fitness tracker bracelet. 

C. Write your goal and the steps you plan to use to achieve your goal in your personal and super secret diary.

The answer is . . .

C.

Surprising, isn’t it? This flies against what common sense tells us. It seems reasonable to believe that we’re more likely to accomplish our goal if we tell people. If other people know, then they have expectations of us and we don’t want to disappoint them. If other people don’t know, then it seems as if it would be easier for us to abandon our goal because who would know, right?

This is what I love about science. Sometimes science tells us incredibly interesting things that flies against convention and common sense. Siver’s point is backed up by Peter Gollwitzer of New York University and his colleagues who found that making goals public actually decreases the probability that the goals will be fulfilled in the future. They conducted four different studies, but the basic study design was similar across studies.

Participants who strongly self-identified as being members of a particular group (e.g., psychology students, law students) rated an intention that was relevant to their identity (e.g., complete readings for class, work on law cases). For half of the participants, the researcher acknowledged the participants’ intention by reading the intention in front of the participants. For the other half of the participants their intention was not read by the researcher. Then all of the participants were asked to complete the task that corresponded with their intention. Gollwitzer and his colleagues found in all four experiments that participants who had their intentions acknowledged by the researcher spent less time on the task and were less likely to complete it. This reduction of goal achievement when intentions are made public was only found with people who strongly identified with being a member of the social group.

Why?

The researchers postulated that when people make their goals public, they receive praise and accolades just for setting those goals. Because they already received the reward (i.e., praise, attention), there is less incentive to fulfill the goal. Attention given to your public goal brings a premature sense of having already accomplished the goal by having your identity as a member of the group affirmed by other people.

Exactly how does this relate to us runners? Well, the reward pathways in our brain get activated whenever we accomplish our goals. Those pathways also get activated whenever we receive attention from people. The reward center doesn’t know how to differentiate between these two different types of reinforcements; it just knows that it received reinforcement. So when we announce our goal on social media, we receive praise and attention that confirm our identity as runners and activates the reward pathways. The activation of the reward pathways fools the brain into thinking the goal has already been achieved, thus decreasing the likelihood of actually achieving our goal.

Of course, additional research needs to be conducted on how people can combat this effect, perhaps through how one conceptualizes the goal-oriented actions or exactly to whom we tell our goals.

This is why you won’t be hearing me announcing my goal for the Wineglass Marathon. How about you? Do you normally announce your goals or do you tend to keep them to yourself?

I'm an academic, a runner, and a New York cliché. I write about the science of exercise, training, and the culture of running. My current goals are a sub-23:00 5K (achieved on 4/22/17 with 22:48) and a sub-1:45 HM.

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15 comments

  1. Great question and interesting study. It depends how I’m feeling during any training cycle. When I didn’t reach my spring marathon goal one of my thoughts afterward was, “great, I didn’t come anywhere close to what I blasted out to the entire world via the web.” BUT that comes with the territory of putting goals on blast. This time around, I am not as aggressive with my goal and therefore not as aggressive with sharing my training and goals on the internet. Not sure if that has anything to do with the study or just based on the fact that I was a bit embarrassed by shouting out my goals last spring.

    1. I know a number blogging runners who were in that same situation. They didn’t make their goal the first time around when they shared, so the second time they keep it a secret and then “Surprise! I ran a race and made my goal post” pops up.

  2. Great post! I would say this totally bears out in my experience. This feels related to me … I noticed that when I started training with a couple of runners who were faster than me that I had a much harder time pushing myself in races because still running so much slower than them didn’t seem worth the extra effort. It’s like just training with them and getting their “fast runner” vibe on me was enough to satisfy my ego or something. Speaking of, I wonder if this is mostly true for those of us who tend to be externally motivated in our goal making (those who seek to achieve to “prove themselves” or to impress other people) rather than those people who are intrinsically motivated and are in it completely for their own satisfaction?

    1. Thanks, Salty. Your question about the type of motivation is a really interesting point. I would venture to guess that people who are extrinsically motivated are more susceptible to this effect because praise is a form of external motivation.

  3. I definitely see the points of this and how it can be counterintuitive. I have a friend who is attempting her first marathon and publicly announced her goal (BQ) and announces her progress (not through a blog but on fb) but she hasn’t been consistent at all with her training. I see many people tell her, “You’re trying. You’re doing your best. Next week will be better.” and while all that is nice, she’s still not getting the job done with her training. Especially for a full.

    I think I’m not motivated so much by praise or my peers’ praise but am vvveeeery self-motivated so the only person I really want to “prove” something to is myself. Plus, I think my goals are realistic and not far-fetched so I *know* I can achieve them if I put the work in. And I know that praise from peers =/= goal met. You gotta get the work done.

    Great post. Very interesting!

    1. Thanks, Helly.

      I think if people aren’t that committed to the goal, but more to the belongingness of the group than announcing a goal would definitely have a big effect on behavior. There are so many unanswered questions that were raised by this study. I would love it more work came out of this.

  4. This is so interesting! It’s definitely counterintuitive, but definitely makes sense. When people know your big ambitious goal and you don’t achieve it, you know there will be the “well, that was a huge goal – you’ll get it next time!” attitude that probably does have less of an effect than both the praise you’d get for announcing that goal and the disappointment if you were to let yourself down. From here on out, my lips are sealed.

  5. I typically don’t announce my goals publicly until just before a race because I don’t want to be disheartened if I can’t make it, and want to be more free to let my body tell me what is reasonable to shoot for. I shared my next marathon goal with the blog group early this season so that they would see the reality of the ups and downs of marathon training and the potential revisions to goals that may come along with it.

    I have admired elite runners such as Shalane Flanagan who stated an aggressive marathon goal of breaking Deena Kastor’s record very publicly, and did not back down after not making her goal. I think it takes a lot of courage to reach high and tell people how high you are reaching.

  6. I have an A, B, and C goal. Goal A is what I really want and what I tell my closest friends. Goal B is what I typically announce on Social Media, mainly my blog. Goal C is what I tell myself I will get or I will quit running for the rest of my life ;)