Observing Others Reach Their Goals Can Make Us Less Likely to Reach Our Own, Study Shows

May 23, 2011

Seeing others succeed may not motivate us to reach similar peaks

DURHAM, N.C. - One might assume that watching someone reach a goal or complete a task would inspire us to match that success. However, new research indicates the opposite may actually be true: seeing others succeed can actually reduce our motivation.

These findings are reported in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and are based on experiments conducted by a group of professors who study organizational and social psychology. The researchers are Grainne Fitzsimons of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business; Kathleen McCulloch of Idaho State University; Sook Ning Chua of McGill University; and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In one experiment, participants observed others trying to solve a series of word puzzles, a common task used by researchers to study goal pursuit. On video monitors, some observers viewed the puzzle solvers completing a word puzzle, others never saw a puzzle being completed, while a control group didn't view any puzzle solving at all. All observers were then asked to complete word puzzles of their own. The researchers found observers who watched the puzzles being completed were less successful with their own puzzles than the observers who saw the incomplete puzzles or the control group.

"Our sense of indirect goal fulfillment is stronger when we observe someone else completing a goal," McCulloch said. "This is what my colleagues and I are calling 'vicarious goal fulfillment.' In effect, we may transfer others' goal fulfillment to ourselves, even though we haven't achieved anything. Conversely, when we see others failing to meet a goal, our own sense of fulfillment isn't as strong, so we might actually work harder."  

The researchers note their findings can have significant relevance to our daily lives, particularly in professional environments.

"Our findings have important functional implications for the workplace," Fitzsimons said. "In staff meetings, employees may mistake a discussion of what needs to be done for actual progress toward a goal. Similarly, one employee's success might actually de-motivate others to work hard. If we are aware of this pitfall, managers can try to avoid it by making it clear that positive feedback is directed at the individual and not shared by others who didn't take part in the success." 

The research was supported by grants from Idaho State University's WE LEAD program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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