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.
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 . . .
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.
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?