A Stanford study on goals and peer “support” reveals when to go it alone

Time to let go?
Time to let go?
Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares
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Few people pursue a personal ambition quietly anymore.

Instead, we connect on Fitbit to see who has or hasn’t hit their fitness targets, or tweet our finishing time after a solo run. At work, peers make pacts to provide mutual support as they strive to meet individual goals.

Research has shown that banding together with others this way is often an effective strategy, a smart way to stay motivated. Though, curiously, we also tend to distance ourselves from our supportive friends as we near our goal, Szu-chi Huang, an associate professor of marketing at Stanford University, discovered in her research a few years ago. Now she has published a new study that may explain exactly why that happens.

Huang argues that as we get closer to our objective, we become no less interested in our peers, but more competitive with them—and our focus shifts from reaching a shared, individual goal to hindering and “beating” the other person. Worse, the study suggests that we become saboteurs. All it takes is the sense of competition, even when none exists.

Huang and her co-authors, Stephanie Lin of Singapore Management University and Ying Zhang of Guanghua School of Management in Beijing, uncovered these patterns through a series of six lab tests that replicated various aspects of what the authors called shared “parallel journeys.”

In one experiment, described in detail in the British Psychological Society’s blog, subjects were given targets to hit in a word-finding game, and paired with online partners who were said to be toiling away at the same activity. But the invisible partner did not exist. Researchers were actually manipulating the game to make study subjects believe their partners were “ahead” or “behind” in their own games. At various intervals, they gave the subjects an opportunity to make their partner’s game more difficult, or easier, to play.

Rationally, participants should not have felt tempted to subvert their partners at any point at in the game, since they knew the number of words found by their partners would have no bearing on their own ability to find words themselves. Instead, as players edged near their targets, and if their fake competitor was in close proximity, they were statistically more likely to opt for sabotage. Then, if the ploy “worked” in their mind, they coasted to the finish line, making less effort than before.

Whether lab studies reflect our real-life behavior is debatable, and this study, like every study, has its limitations. Notably, it didn’t examine whether factors like the importance of the goal, or the nature of the interpersonal relationship, would either heighten or dampen the urge to trip up a “competitor,” the authors acknowledge.

However, these findings may be compelling to people who share their career or health ambitions and monitor them as part of a group. The emotional support that comes with socializing your goals, so to speak, may be helpful in the beginning stages of any self-improvement project. But it’s probably wise to avoid comparisons down the road, when the pseudo-competition emerges, and things can get ugly.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.