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The Gollwitzer Effect

Whilst stumbling around reddit today, I learnt of what some (notably the denizens of /r/fitness) refer to as the Gollwitzer effect. It’s also known by the much more boring term ‘substitution’.

In short, Gollwitzer is a psychology researcher who showed that telling people about our goals actually decreases the likelihood of our attaining them.
Yep, you read that right, telling people you’re going to lose weight may well make you less likely to lose weight or, rather, likely to lose less weight.

Not the most intuitive of findings. I’ve always liked to tell people my goals as a way of trying to keep me honest – as you may have gathered from the steak challenges. I figured there aren’t too many motivators that are stronger than the fear of social humiliation (and giving away perfectly good steak). Apparently, I may have been wrong.

The suggested cause of this is quite simple and makes a lot of sense. Basically, when it comes to identity-related goals, we gain a sense of accomplishment by telling people that we are making progress towards that identity. Even worse, we actually believe we’ve made more progress if we’ve told people than we otherwise do. As we feel we’ve accomplished more towards our goal, we feel less need to work on it. You can see this sort of effect in play when you’re trying to get fit by working out more and eating better. When you spend some extra time at the gym, you care less about meeting your food goals. But if you skip some time at the gym, you care more about meeting your food goals.

Though it’s important to note that I wasn’t definitely wrong. Gollwitzer et al are quite clear in pointing out that this research applies to people who are strongly committed to attaining their goals. Additionally, the paper does not consider the strength of accountability in the effect of a public goal. So, it may be the case that if you tell all your friends about your goal, and they have a way of holding you reliably accountable, and they do so, that telling them is a net benefit.

My personal experience has been that even though some friends are incredibly helpful, most really aren’t and the accountability is dependent on me not manipulating the system. Which basically means there’s very little accountability at all.

I’m going to indulge in some not-at-all-rigorous self-research by not telling people what my monthly challenges for the next few months are until I’ve succeeded or failed.

As always: note that I’m a layperson when it comes to psychology and I may well have misinterpreted some or all of the paper. I searched (briefly) for papers that rebutted or criticised Gollwitzer, but I found none. The paper itself is quite accessible, though some stats knowledge is helpful, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in reading more.

Hat tip to /r/fitness and /u/menuitem for writing about it first here in reply to a post about a TED talk. Also, note that /u/menuitem’s take on the effect seems to be a stronger position than what is actually supported by the evidence he provides. Maybe there’s more evidence cited in the TED talk. I haven’t watched it partly because TED and I have a habit of getting into arguments and mostly because of time constraints.

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