By Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
When it comes to setting and accomplishing goals, you may think that announcing your goal on social media or telling all your friends will increase your likelihood of success. In fact, the opposite is true, as Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., explains.
Accomplishing Goals and Public Declarations
The study of cognitive neuroscience has exploded doors previously locked about both the physicality and experience of having a brain. The most amazing tips are also counter-intuitive, which is especially true when it comes to accomplishing goals.
When you set a challenging, long-term goal for yourself, don’t tell anyone about it—or, at most, tell as few people as possible. The fewer people you tell, the greater your chances of actually achieving that goal.
This runs counter to how most people behave. If you decide that you’re going to run a 26.2-mile marathon, you’re likely to talk with people about it. For one thing, all that training is going to consume a lot of time.
As you build up your weekly mileage, it will become a bigger and bigger part of your thoughts. When you’re having conversations with your family, friends, and colleagues, it will probably come up, and eventually you will have gone on the record with this goal.
What Surveys Reveal about Goal Intentions
Many people believe this public declaration will increase the likelihood that you’ll accomplish the chosen goal. After all, if you decide after a few months of training that you don’t really want to run that marathon anymore, you might be more likely to stick with it due to social pressure.
If you quit, you’ll have to deal with the shame of telling all of those people about your failure. And this makes perfect sense; you will probably at least attempt the goal to avoid those very consequences.
But it’s deeper than that. Research suggests that telling people about your big goal won’t increase the chance of succeeding at all. On the contrary, the more people you tell, the less likely that you’ll succeed.
Professor of Psychology Peter Gollwitzer and his collaborators have conducted many studies of goal-directed behavior. In these types of experiments, participants are recruited who respond via survey, indicating a high level of motivation and complete commitment to achieving a particular goal.
In one study, students were asked to commit to spending more time studying. In the control condition of that study, the students were released and contacted later to assess how much extra studying they did.
In the experimental condition, participants were asked to announce these intentions to a group of their peers before the task and then were contacted later for assessment.
The vast majority of those who announced their intention to study more actually studied significantly less hours. This type of study has been repeated over many fields of endeavor.
In some versions of the study, the goal intention is expressed to a group of peers, while in other cases, to just a single individual. In some studies, the goals are about long-term careers and parenting plans; in others, about short-term gratification goals.
Regardless of whether the participants’ goals were long-term or short-term goals, the basic result held across all of the research studies: The study participants who broadcast their intentions generally fail to accomplish their goals. These findings were consistent across many categories of goals, including running marathons, used in the earlier example; planting a garden; or improving eating habits.
Researchers have described the difference between people’s plans and people’s actions as the “intention-behavior gap.” The gap is the difference between what we intend to do and what we actually do. Announcing your goals seems to widen that gap.
Why doesn’t the positive reinforcement of public expectation help?
As with most things in the brain, it’s chemical. When we choose to do something and then succeed in doing it, our brain delivers a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine to the nucleus accumbens—a pleasure center of the brain.
When you decide that you want to achieve some goal, your body prepares itself for that eventual chemical shot associated with the accomplishment. When you succeed, you’ll get it, of course—unless you short-circuit the process by telling people beforehand.
“The reason why telling people about your goal is a problem is that when they give you positive support, you get a little bit of that sense of accomplishment and that pleasurable dopamine boost,” Dr. Vishton said.
You cheat yourself. In a very physical sense, you reduce your drive to achieve that goal, and you do this chemically.
Now, it is possible that when you tell someone about a goal, he or she may provide important support that will help you achieve the goal. With the right person—a close friend, maybe a life coach—the benefit of that support can outweigh the costs associated with revealing your goals and reducing your brain’s limited resources.
There’s nothing as inherently satisfying as setting and achieving goals; so by all means, set goals and chase them. But if you want to improve your chances of achieving them, let it be a surprise to your friends, unless by telling them, they can provide you with proper support and accountability.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.