Are Public Commitments Counterproductive?

The music entrepreneur Derek Sivers gave a TED Talk with the provocative claim that you’re more likely to reach your goals if you keep them secret:


Sivers claims that the benefits of secret goal-setting are proven by hard social science testing and “social reality” theory.? The idea he presents is that when we announce a goal, our mind is tricked into thinking that we’ve already achieved it and so we are less likely to do the work that is required to actually accomplish the goal. As he memorably puts it, “Your mind mistakes the talking for doing.”? You can read more about his thinking in his blog post on the subject.

I’m attracted to provocative claims as much as the next person.? But this talk is reckless and at times just plain wrong.? Sivers tells us in the talk that his “Keep Your Goals to Yourself” evidence “goes against the conventional wisdom that we should tell our friends our goals right so that they hold it to us, err, hold us to it, yeah.”

His inability to get out the last bit at the end, I think, might be a Freudian slip.? You see, the experiments that he is alluding to don’t test whether “telling our friends our goals so that they can hold us to the goals” works or not.? In fact, the experiments cited are not about announcing your intentions to your friends, but about whether or not your written intentions are noticed by an experimenter.? And most crucially they are not testing whether “announcing so that your friends can hold you to your goals” works.? If your friends are going to have any shot of holding you to your goals, they must not only know your goals, but they must know later on whether or not you achieved them.? This subsequent feedback is crucial, and it is crucially missing from the experiments upon which he relies.

About a minute and 50 seconds into his Ted talk, Sivers describes a 2009 experiment conducted by Peter Gollwitzer (also available here) that provides the primary and most recent experimental evidence for his thesis.? Here is how Sivers describes the experiment:

163 people across four separate tests — everyone wrote down their personal goal. Half of them announced their commitment to this goal to the room, and half didn’t. Then everyone was given 45 minutes of work that would directly lead them towards their goal, but they were told that they could stop at any time. Now, those who kept their mouths shut worked the entire 45 minutes, on average, and when asked afterwards, said that they felt that they had a long way to go still to achieve their goal. But those who had announced it quit after only 33 minutes, on average, and when asked afterwards, said that they felt much closer to achieving their goal.

To be frank, there are many discrepancies between Sivers’s description and the published description of experiments in this paper.? (For example, Sivers claims in his talk that there were 163 subjects, and in his post that there were 63 subjects).? But I’m pretty sure his talk is describing the second experiment, where there just 32 subjects.? Here’s how Gollwitzer (and his coauthors) describe the same experiment:

[Law students at a German university were] informed that the experiment consisted of two independent parts. The first was introduced as an assessment of students’ willingness to intensify their study of law. Participants were asked to answer a four-page questionnaire. On the first page, the following critical intention item was presented: ”I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law.” Participants responded on a 9-point scale ranging from 1, definitely not, to 9, definitely yes. In the social-reality condition, after a participant completed the questionnaire, the experimenter looked at this item and asked whether the number circled on the answer scale was the one the participant actually wanted to circle. Then the experimenter dropped the questionnaire into a box. In the no-social-reality condition, participants were simply asked to drop the questionnaire into a prepared box.

There are important structural differences between these two descriptions.? Sivers says that half the subjects “announced their commitment . . . to the room,” but in the study there is no oral announcement to the room.? Instead, some of the subjects were asked whether their written level of commitment (which, by the way, might have been low) was correct.

In the second part of the experiment, all of the law students were asked to help the experimenter develop a computer-based study package for law students.? Gollwitzer, et al. wrote:

Participants were asked to help her find which cases to select for the package by trying hard to solve each case. The students were given 45 min to work on the prepared cases (plus the time needed to finish the case they were working on when the time limit was reached), but they were told that they could finish earlier if they wished. The time participants spent working on these cases was used to assess how successfully participants translated their intention into behavior. (emphasis added)

The last sentence is bizarre.? Using time spent as a measure of success is not the way I normally grade my law students.? One might have instead assessed how many of the cases the subjects were able to “solve.”? Good students often turn in exams early.

The authors did find that students whose level of commitment had been noticed worked fewer minutes than those whose level of commitment had gone unnoticed.? But even here there are unexplained discrepancies between the TED talk description and the article.? Sivers claims the difference was 45 minutes for the non-announcing group and 33 minutes for the announcing group.? But the article reports 45.65 minutes for the unnoticed group versus 41.52 minutes for the group whose level of commitment was noticed.? This four minute differential was still statistically significant but not nearly as dramatic as the 12 minute differential reported by Sivers.? (And for the life of me, I cannot find in the article any evidence that subjects were asked after the study about how close they felt they were to achieving their goals.)

(I emailed both Sivers and Gollwitzer to try to find out if there is somehow another experiment that reports the kinds of information contained in the TED talk, and Sivers very nicely sent me several attachments upon which he relied.? But I have still not been able to identify an experiment that comes close to matching the claims of his talk.? I have some concern that Sivers is simply referring to another experiment – even though he links to the same paper in his blog post on the subject and emailed me the paper as one of his attachments.? At a minimum, my difficulty in easily finding the underlying study suggests that TED.com would be well-advised to start including related hyperlinks to the background material supporting the talk.? And if the numbers of the Gollwitzer study are in fact misstated, it suggests that TED should start fact-checking the claims of their speakers.)

I’m most concerned that the Gollwitzer study is not well-designed to support Sivers’s claim that we shouldn’t tell our friends our goal so that they hold us to it.? In the Gollwitzer experiment, there was no “telling,” there were “no friends” and there was no subsequent “holding us to it.”? For goal-telling to be effective, it is crucial that your friends subsequently learn whether or not you succeeded.? It is the potential embarrassment of not following through combined with the potential pride in reaching your goal that provides the key ingredient.

Justin Wolfers definitely understood this when he publicly committed on this blog to running the Stockholm Marathon:

I’m going to publicly declare my major fitness goal on this blog, and rely on this blog’s readers to ridicule me if I fail. So, here goes: this summer, I’m going to be visiting the IIES at Stockholm University, and on the last day of my visit, I’m planning on running the Stockholm Marathon. And I hope that you, dear reader, will keep me honest. It would be embarrassing to fail publicly, and I suspect it would be embarrassing enough that today’s public statement of my running goals will keep my future self pretty darn motivated.

It shouldn’t surprise you that his goal-telling as commitment worked.? Justin finished it in 4 hours and 23 minutes.

The Gollwitzer experiments might suggest that telling people about goals may not be productive if the audience is never going to find out whether you succeed.? So if you tell a friend who is about to leave for Antarctica that you plan to say a prayer every evening before you go to sleep, you may be less likely to follow through than if you had kept your prayer goal private.? But if you tell your priest and 5 members of the vestry that you are committing to attending church, you are much more likely to find yourself in the pew next Sunday.? The mere possibility that they will notice that you are not following through on your commitment is sufficient to add the extra layer of accountability.

The idea of making a financial commitment to go to church is not a hypothetical.? On New Year’s 2009, Justin Noble, a public health student in Toronto, designed a commitment contract to go to church once a week.? As I say in my book, Justin had successfully used stickK before to get to work on time.? To make sure his commitment to go to church stuck, he backed it up with all three accountability devices that the site has to offer. He put down $600, and he signed up his girlfriend as both a supporter and a referee to make sure he followed through.? The contract seemed to work like a charm.? Every week, Justin faithfully reported to us that he had succeeded.? But when I called Justin to ask him about his experience with stickK, he confessed that he had “cheated” in some of his reports to stickK.? Even though the commitment at least indirectly implicates a higher all-seeing referee, Justin (with his girlfriend/referee’s complicity) was willing to send in false reports.

Justin’s story also underscores the importance of designating multiple supporters for your commitment.? It’s easier to conspire with your girlfriend than with an entire congregation.? I was thinking of Justin when I said a church-going commitment is more likely to succeed if you designate several members of the vestry as supporters.

I used to think that having a referee was the most important compliment to a financial stake.? But the stories I’ve uncovered of referees letting their friends slide make me think that, contra to Sivers, having multiple supporters may be as important.? When it comes to commitments, there’s safety in numbers.

Indeed, on the same New Year’s morning when Justin was committing to go to church, Andy Mayer, an executive at a Fortune 100 company who focuses on consumer behavior, was signing up with stickK to lose weight.? Andy put $1,500 at risk and committed to lose a pound each week for 20 weeks.? He also composed an email to send to his friends and family telling them about his weight loss commitment.?? “I had no trouble signing up for the contract.? That was the easy part.? The hardest part for me was telling people. . . . That e-mail sat open for several hours.? It is one thing to enter into a contract where you and your spouse know what you are going to do, but I knew in my head that the social norming part – the social comparison part – the voyeuristic part was what was gonna make a difference.”? Just before dinner, he sent the email and, true to form, Andy came through with flying colors.? I caught up with him five months later when he was still riding the high that comes with successfully completing a difficult commitment – in Andy’s case losing just about exactly 10 percent of his body weight.

Success stories like Andy’s are one reason I think it is so dangerous for Sivers to say that it is better to keep goals secret.? As Andy recently wrote in his blog:

I told my parents, sisters, in-laws and co-workers about the commitment.? I invited all of them to register at Stickk.com and watch my weight loss.? Telling them was a lot harder than putting the $1,500 at risk.? Ian talks about this social aspect a bit in the book (see page 183), but I can’t underscore it enough.? Getting fined and getting embarrassed socially for missing a commitment is a powerful one-two combo.

My commitment actually took one step more than Ian documents in the book.? About three weeks into the diet, I presented on loss aversion and other aspects of behavioral economics at a meeting of my company’s top 120 executives.? During the Q&A session after the presentation, a colleague publicly “outed” me and my commitment in front of all these folks as an example.? In retrospect, I couldn’t have asked for a better incentive.

Andy had a lot more on the line then just money.? If he falsely reported to stickK that he was losing weight, his friends would probably call him on it.? The possibility of that embarrassment kept Andy honest and on the path toward success.

Now, in some cases, making a commitment public may undermine some of the benefits of success.? It might feel like less of an accomplishment if it is publicly known that you had to use extrinsic encouragement to succeed.? In Carrots and Sticks, I also write about a woman who used a stickK contract to commit to call her grandmother.? It might make her calls less meaningful if grandma learned that the calls were made in part to avoid losing money.? People might at times accept a lower probability of success in return for a larger feeling of accomplishment if they do succeed.? But that rationale for privacy is very different than Sivers’s claim that publicity reduces the probability of achieving the goal.

One of the more candid moments in Jim Gray‘s “The Decision” interview with Lebron James was when Gray out of the blue asked:

Are you still a nail biter?

Notice how the question aggressively assumes that at one time James was biting his nails.? The lawyer in me was hoping James would respond “Objection!? Assumes a fact not in evidence.”? But instead James seemed to own up to the habit, at least in the past.? James answered:

I have a little bit. Not of late.

Sivers would have you think that if James wanted to stop chewing his nails, he would be best advised to keep that goal to himself.? But I say to you he would be more likely to reach his goal if he publicly announced his goal to stop biting and challenged the press and public to give him grief if he failed.


frankenduf

this has always been my empirically backed claim to get married in a basement somewhere, but i always face the ridicule of the uneducated and slightly less cheap masses

Ghost

Why are you even referring to anything mentioned by a TED Talk? The whole premise of TED is so silly.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

People have a multitudinous source of personal inspiration and motivation. Some want public scrutiny and crowd motivation. Some work better with private internal drive. Some are anal retentive and work off to-do lists. Some are spontaneous free spirits living in a moment. Some want money. Some want fame. Some what sex.

Their MOTIVATIONS are as different and varied as their PERSONALITIES. Our challenge is to find what works best for ourselves. I know college students will do almost anything for free pizza.

RaquelCMS

I agree with Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team in saying that this case is different for everybody because motivation comes from your personality. Many people are motivated by their friends and therefore they tell them what they want to accomplish in order to get this motivation. If it were true, that by saying your goal it is less likely to accomplish them, this person would not accomplish his/her goal because by keeping the goal to themselves, they will not receive motivation. In other cases, people are competitive. They might not want to say what they want to accomplish in order to decrease the amount of obstacles put by people in their way. This is actually something very smart, but, everything done to accomplish your goal would have to be done by yourself instead of receiving motivation and help from others.
In my opinion, goals are not accomplished based on weather you announce them or not. Goals are accomplished by weather or not you believe in yourself. If you think you can make something, you will and if you think you cant, the process will be harder. Again, like Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team said, its all about motivation and personalities.

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Bobby G

DBDDT (#3) I think is right... as my econ 101 (or was it 102?) teacher would always say, the answer to pretty much any econ question is "Well, it depends..."

People are motivated by different things, absolutely true. Different "goals" for the same person may have different sources for motivation... for example, some very intimate personal goals can be (and often are) achieved without telling anyone, while some more socially admirable goals can get more motivation by more public announcements; completion of said goal can bring acclaim, even if only on a small scale, and failure can earn disappointment.

When the stakes are not very high, public commitments can be very healthy I think. When the stakes are high, public commitments are probably irrelevant... the personal consequences can be far more important than letting some third party down.

My anecdotal, off-the-top-of-my-head hypothesis :)

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ChristianSaboCMS

Thanks for taking my dreams away, but this is true. When I was younger I wanted so badly to become an actor, and I would tell everyone how I was going to be and what movies I would play in. After performing in various plays I started to lay it back let directors call me making myself more elastic as an actor, were I wouldn't play for low amounts of money. Next thing I know was that I had no one calling me and I had basically thrown my dreams out the window. I wouldn't consider all this time spend on acting as a sunk cost because the next career i want to persue is related but i do not want to tell in order to get there.
The marginal cost of this video was spending some time doing it, figuring out information from psycologist, and scaring me but the benefit is that it informs those like me that like to tell what they have as goals in life.

David Cain

This whole article is a bizarre crusade. You disagree with a Ted talk. OK. Do what works for you. Opinions aren't "dangerous."

cbrink

> Opinions aren’t “dangerous.”

But the speaker doesn't qualify this as just an opinion, he supposedly backs it up with "evidence". That is where the problem is. "I like blue" is completely different than "My experiment shows that blue cars get less flat tires".

While your statement is true, the actual content you are referring to, doesn't apply. Surprisingly similar to the situation described in the article.

Chris walker

Trust an academic to weigh in on social comentry from the safety of a full time employed safe job behind a desk. If you got out and lived in the real world you'd find evidence that both supports and challenged Sivers speech. First, setting too high goals causes depression. Did your naive and narrow critiqe look outside your little worl of borrowing other peoples information? Second, not setting goals is what usually causes self deprivation and addictive behaviour. And of course you need research to validate this because you don't trust your intuition, which is why you don't understand why keeping your goals to yourself for high level entrepreneurs (the opposite) to accademia) is wise.

Jeremy

Chris, clearly you don't know who you're talking to. "If you got out and lived in the real world", "naive", "your little world of borrowing other peoples information" - all ridiculously unfounded and patently incorrect assumptions to make about an expert renowned in this specific field for his decades of very public real-life research and experimentation, and engagement with real-life application of his work.

"You need research to validate this because you don’t trust your intuition" - well, I'm so glad we have intellectuals like you who can just "trust your intuition" to know the truth instead of doing any actual thinking, study or (heaven forbid) science.

Paul

Thanks for posting this. I had previously seen the TED talk and taken it at face value. Given the impact achieving goals has on our lives I think it's important we know the most effective ways (based on evidence) to achieve them.

Michaela

It sounds like TED should start fact-checking their speakers!

I know it's tempting to say yes to all Gladwell-esque, counterintuitive arguments--and that's what bloggers and conferences like this thrive on--but come on, TED, you can choose from anyone! Do some background work!

Felicia Joy

More than disspell Sivers' talk and hypothesis with empirical evidence it seems that this is a pedantic analysis that relies heavily on anecdotal rebuffs. That said, thanks for your thoughts as it is never good to take even the most inspiring and provocative ideas at face value without mindful critique. I don't believe there is anything "dangerous" about Sivers' talk; or any TED talks. It's public commentary from bright people who are passionate. What's wrong with that? It beats local evening news, which, I would say, is far more dangerous. Regarding Sivers' idea that unshared goals are more likely to be achieved, people should do what is best for themselves but I agree with him. Besides food, air and water, I think we all need love. Love comes in many forms and at varying degrees. Admiration, adoration and acknowledgment are lower degrees of love. Deep down, it is these---not necessarily accountability, I believe---that drive us to set and accomplish goals. And when you share goals early---before they are accomplished---you get this payoff in the beginning, before you've done the work; especially if the goal is lofty. People, particularly friends, are quick to say "wow" and give out a round of 'atta boys and 'atta girls when you even attempt a goal. Their praise is even stronger if you actually accomplish the goal. So depending on other motivating factors and the level of praise a person admires, they will continue---or not---after this premature pay off. I have found that the thrill of self-satisfaction and the excitement of sharing a completed goal are more compelling forces than the "ridicule" of friends. Also, I once attended a talk (not a TED) that Sara Blakely, founder of SPANX, gave and she kept her idea and goals to herself initially too; because she didn't want the well intentioned doubt of friends and family to actually be a de-motivating factor. Just food for thought.

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E Olson

Crap! Now everyone knows to keep their goals a secret.

aaron

I found this article and video very enlightening on the social behaviors of people. I find that my mom seems to do the same thing now that I think of it. Though I find that this idea fits best to losing weight it may not be the best fit for other goals. I think that goals that are more black and white may not be affected as much.

Rich

AGREE:

I think it's great that people are getting more critical of TED Talks. The talks have certainly become more popular, more often, and of a lower quality over the past 2 years, I believe.

DISAGREE:

However, TED is non synonymous with Science. It is also Design - as in Lifestyle Design.

And it is Entertainment - as in the motivation we take from a given speech, and the sheer enjoyment that the speech imparts on us.

META THOUGHTS:

HYPERLINKS to source material in the TED videos would be awesome though! Fantastic idea.

Thank you for this dissection of Derek's talk. I personally agree with Sivers, as his theory relates solely to Creative Endeavors.

The more I talk about crafting something, the less likely I am to do it, it seems. Because I've already drafted my best ideas to my friends, rather than brainstorming them in their native medium.

Patrick Foley

I've had public goals and private goals. The correlation I notice is that whenever I've succeeded, I've made a genuine commitment to MYSELF to achieve the goal, regardless of whether I told others.

Take running for instance ... I can't remember when I started telling people I was training for a marathon (http://www.grandrapidsmarathon.com/results/06_AG_Marathon.txt 3:52:39). Eventually, the consistent activity of training (and its effects on the body) becomes fairly noticeable. At some point after that, I ENTERTAINED the goal of qualifying for Boston ("I just need to get 5 years older and 22 minutes faster ..."). I told a few people before realizing I wasn't committed to the amount of training required to achieve that goal. It wasn't the telling or the not telling in either case - it was that I was genuinely committed to the attainable goal of finishing a marathon but I am not yet genuinely committed to the goal of qualifying for Boston. I haven't convinced MYSELF (yet) that I can qualify for Boston - why should I expect others to do that work for me?

From time to time, I catch myself trying to be "talked into" a goal I'm not committed to by telling others. It probably works some of the time, but it's also tedious for the listener. That alone is reason to consider Derek's assertion.

I find Derek to be inspiring and thought-provoking, but he didn't need to prove his point at all. The proof is less interesting, less useful than the assertion. Why not just experiment with both ways and see which works better for you? That's the only data point that really matters.

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Stan Amonette

Keep functioning ,impressive job!

Gabriel

That idea that you should/shouldn't talk about your goals, I think, comes from the '70 and R0n L. Hubbard's Sc1entology. The idea somehow infiltrated self-help community and now and again surfaces through various speakers. They usually use "authoritative", imprecise speech rather than research and facts. The real reason for coming up with that idea, for Hubbard, was separating affiliates from the rest of the society by not talking about their goals, even with themselves. That way he was making his organization more cohesive, himself more powerful and members more miserable. He actually defined that "whatever you talk about dissapears" through one of 4 "metaphysical principles" the universe (read Sc1entology) is based on.

I am still looking for good enough answer. This article is a great help. Thanks Ian.

Oh, and I substituted all the i's with 1's and o's with zeros so this doesn't bring a bunch of Sc1ent0l0g1sts through search engines creating bs battlefield.

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