Volume 16, Number 3
Suppose you have decided that you are going to pursue a goal that is important to you. It may be a health-related goal, a relationship goal, or a work-related goal. With respect to maximizing the likelihood that you will strive toward and hopefully attain the goal, should you tell others about your goal?
The most accurate answer to this question, as is often the case with human behavior, is “it depends.” For a number of decades, research data indicated that people tended to be more committed to goals when they made others aware of them, although being committed to a goal doesn’t necessarily mean the goal will be achieved.
However, an often-cited paper published in Psychological Science in 2009 found that going public led people to feel that they were already closer to obtaining the goal, and therefore put forth less effort into striving to reach the goal. This research was the basis for a 2010 TED talk by Derek Sivers that has over 6 million views online. Sivers strongly encouraged people to keep important goals secret.
Last year, several investigators from the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University, along with a collaborator from Penn State University, published a paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology that summarized the results of four studies conducted on this topic. What they found was that the perceived status of the person or persons with whom one shares goals (i.e., the audience) matters. Perceived status was measured using three items in which participants indicated the degree to which perceptions of the other persons’ status, prestige, and respect were higher or lower relative to oneself. If the audience was perceived to be of higher status than oneself, striving toward the goal appeared to be fueled by the desire to be evaluated positively by these individuals. Sharing goals with persons of similar or lower perceived status did not increase goal striving. The investigators’ conclusion was that making goals known to an audience perceived to have higher status than oneself can result in stronger pursuit of the goal. It is important to note that the studies reported in this 2019 article did not specifically examine health-related goals.
Following are some questions to consider prior to “going public” with goals. What is one’s motivation for going public? Who will be told, and why choose these persons? How is one’s behavior likely to be affected if these persons know about one’s goal? What is the perceived status of these persons? What kind of feedback is likely (e.g., positive vs negative; process vs outcome) and how does this align with the kinds of feedback that one finds most helpful? What is one’s previous experience with “going public?” Some of these questions can be difficult to answer, depending upon one’s insight and experience.
Should one go public with goals? “It depends.”
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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