Now that you've set your difficult, specific, and attainable resolutions for 2014, should you tell people about your plans?
Before you update your Facebook status proclaiming your intention to lose 15 pounds, run a marathon, or publish 20 papers, you should think about your reasons for broadcasting your plans to the world. If you're thinking about this public commitment the wrong way, you might be setting yourself up for disaster.
According to research that stretches all the way back to 1933, sharing your goal-pursuit intentions may actually make you less likely to pursue those goals. In studies that have been successfully replicated dozens of times throughout the past 80 years, people who kept their goals to themselves were more likely to successfully accomplish them than those who broadcasted their plans to the world.
This happens because sharing your intentions with others can create a sense of progress towards a goal, even if you haven't actually done anything yet. As a good example, imagine that you've decided to run a marathon. Once you start telling all of your friends and family about this goal, "liking" the relevant pages on Facebook, and updating your statuses to indicate your training plans, you've created a public image of yourself as "someone who runs marathons." Creating this so-called "social reality" for yourself can be thought of as a subgoal that you've completed en route to your superordinate (or broader/larger) goal of...actually racing. If you conceptualize this public commitment as a form of goal progress, you might actually become less motivated to pursue other goals (like actually training), because it will feel somewhat like you've already "done enough" for now.
However, despite the strength of this research, this seems to clash with some people's actual experiences. The comment sections on articles about this work are rife with people who don't really believe these findings, as their personal experiences indicate that their motivation for certain goals greatly increased after sharing their intentions with others. While anecdotes are certainly not data, it does seem a little simplistic to assume that every instance of sharing your goals with others will be detrimental, doesn't it? Even though the findings themselves have been thoroughly tested and have generally held strong over time?
This is where research from other domains might be helpful.
Outside of the goal pursuit realm, research on attitudes has also examined the role of public commitment on resistance to persuasion. In one study, people who publicly stated their positions on an issue subsequently reported feeling more confident in those initial attitudes, evaluated the issues themselves as more important, and were more resistant to the researchers' later attempts to change these attitudes. This fits in well with the broader resistance-to-persuasion literature, which indicates that publicly committing to an attitude is consistently, positively linked to resistance to persuasion. The more you publicly commit to an attitude, the better able you are to resist any attempts to change it, and this is largely due to those increases in confidence and perceived importance/centrality.
Again, resistance to persuasion and successful goal pursuit are not the same thing. But this literature can still give us a big clue about the reason why publicly stating your goals can sometimes work, and it can sometimes backfire: It's the idea of Commitment Versus Progress.
Most of the literature showing a negative effect of publicly stating your intentions on subsequent goal pursuit revolves around the idea that publicly tying yourself to these goals signifies some sort of progress. For many people, this is how they construe this public commitment; letting your friends and family know that you intend to run a marathon signifies that you've made some sort of significant progress towards actually accomplishing this goal, which means you can ramp down your efforts. However, you could also think of your public statement as an indication of goal commitment, rather than goal progress.
Research by Ayelet Fishbach and her colleagues at the University of Chicago examined the effects of successful completion of subgoals (like publicly committing to a goal on Facebook or Twitter, for example) on subsequent pursuit of other subgoals that all act in service of a single, superordinate goal (like, say, actually training for and running a marathon).
What they found was that when people conceptualized their success on the subgoal as a form of progress, they were less likely to pursue the overarching goal, because the completed subgoal was seen as an acceptable "substitute" for other subgoals. This fits with an idea proposed by Peter Gollwitzer and colleagues suggesting that public commitment might undermine superordinate goal progress if people view this act of commitment as an acceptable substitute for pursuing other subgoals that would actually be more helpful. When people conceptualized their success on the subgoal as a form of commitment rather than progress, on the other hand, they were actually more likely to pursue the overarching goal, as the other subgoals were seen as complementary and consistent with the persona to which he/she had already publicly committed. This fits with what we know from the resistance-to-persuasion literature; generally, the more committed, accountable, and certain you feel about an attitude (or a goal), the more likely you should be to stick to it (or pursue it). If there's anything people truly hate, it's looking like a flip-flopper.
So before you update your status or tweet out about your 2014 resolutions, think about whether you're conceptualizing it as an act of progress or an act of commitment. And if you've already Tweeted to the world about your registration for that marathon in May, don't fret! Just make sure that you think about your status as having committed you to that goal -- and don't make the mistake of thinking that a Facebook status update will make up for a month of missed training when that marathon rolls around.
Mahler, W. (1933). Ersatzhandlungen verschiedenen Realitatsgrades. Psychologische Forschung, 18, 27–89.
Gollwitzer, P., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V., & Seifert, A. (2009). When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap? Psychological Science, 20 (5), 612-618 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02336.x
Hollenbeck, J. R., Williams, C. R., & Klein, H. J. (1989). An empirical investigation of the
antecedents of commitment to difficult goals. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 18-23
Gopinath, M., & Nyer, P. (2009). The effect of public commitment on resistance to persuasion: The influence of attitude certainty, issue importance, susceptibility to normative influence, preference for consistency and source proximity International Journal of Research in Marketing, 26 (1), 60-68 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijresmar.2008.08.003
Fishbach, A., Dhar, R., & Zhang, Y. (2006). Subgoals as substitutes or complements: The role of goal accessibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91 (2), 232-242 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
Computer image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons (user: Fleshgrinder)
Running man pictogram in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons (users: Parutakupiu and Thadius856).
Facebook "dislike" featured image available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license via Wikimedia Commons (user: LMFAO)
This piece was originally posted at my old PsySociety WordPress blog on 1/2/2013. You can see the original post by clicking the From The Archives icon on the left.