For Motivation, Keep Goals Secret

Conventional wisdom for setting goals and following through on intentions is to make a public statement of intent in order to bring about some accountability. However the research on the theory is mixed.

Derek Sivers summarises a number of studies that suggest we should keep our goals private if we want to remain motivated (especially if that goal is contributing to a perceived or hoped-for ‘identity’):

Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.

In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a person announced the solution to a problem, and was acknowledged by others, it was now […] a “social reality”, even if the solution hadn’t actually been achieved.

NYU psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer has been studying this since his 1982 book Symbolic Self-Completion (pdf article here) – and recently published results of new tests in a research article, When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?

Four different tests of 63 people found that those who kept their intentions private were more likely to achieve them than those who made them public and were acknowledged by others.

Once you’ve told people of your intentions, it gives you a “premature sense of completeness.”

The research article in question concludes that “Identity-related behavioral intentions that had been noticed by other people were translated into action less intensively than those that had been ignored” and that “when other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity”.

1 thought on “For Motivation, Keep Goals Secret

  1. Tim

    Ok… I see the effect in that study – but does it really apply to large scale goals that we pursue over long periods of time in real life? As far as I understand this study, it was in a pretty limited setting and in a pretty limited amount of time.

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