Social Pressure vs. Commitment Devices – which helps more for making changes?

It’s good to have goals, and finding things that we want to do or accomplish is easy. Actually succeeding at our goals is the tricky part. Should we make our ambitions public? What tools, tips or tricks can help us to follow through on commitments when we make them? And which ones work the best?

These questions live at the heart of an increasing amount of research into the psychology of commitment and achievement. While there is encouraging information surfacing from recent studies, researchers are also challenging long-held beliefs. As we look for ways to be healthier, increase our on-the-job performance or live more fulfilling lives, it’s worth noting what tactics appear to support achievement as well as those that may only erect obstacles in our path.

Going public

Traditional knowledge would have us believe that we need to announce our intentions to the world. Only then, by way of social pressure and a healthy fear of public failure, will we have the necessary support structure to achieve our goals.

Publicly stating a risky goal worked out for Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series.

Publicly stating a risky goal worked out for Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series.

The iconic example of this type of affirmation-seeking announcement of intent is the ‘New Year’s Resolution.’ But that oft-maligned, annual self-promise isn’t the only characteristic declaration of it’s type. Publicly sharing goals is commonplace in athletics and in workplace reviews. We see something similar in traditional wedding vows, and – in fact – vows of all sorts. But do these public statements of intent work?

Maybe not so much, According to Newsweek and psychologist Peter Gollwitzer at the New York University (NYU). Gollwitzer and his team performed a series of experiments using law students as subjects. Presumably, a student pursing a career in law ought to be suitably motivated to succeed. There already exists some level of undergraduate past performance. Law school ain’t cheap, so there is likely some financial pressure to perform. As a whole, law professionals tend to do pretty well, so the reward structure – while distant – is certainly tangible and real.

What Gollwitzer did was present the students with a challenging, time-intensive task. Students interested in participating were instructed to work as hard as they could, but they were allowed to quit at any time. Certain students were randomly selected to discuss their intentions with the researchers beforehand. Then the researchers measured the actual work performed.

The results were stacked against students who went public. According to Newsweek, “only those who kept their hopes private actually did the hard work needed to achieve that goal.” But … we’re supposed to set goals, right? Why wouldn’t announcing them publicly put pressure on us to actually perform?

There’s a common psychological exam where test subjects are asked how closely they associate themselves with a person or item depicted in a photograph. The photos are all the same, except they are printed out at different sizes. Test subjects are asked to select the image size they feel most closely associated with. The law students were shown different sized pictures of a Supreme Court justice. When a small image is selected, the viewer feels distant or unrelated to the subject. The larger the image selected, the closer that person feels associated with the topic.

Gollwitzer asked his law students to write down three things they intended to do to future their law careers. Again, a selection of those students were asked to discuss their goals with the researchers. Then they were shown the Supreme Court justice pictures.

Unsurprisingly, the students who publically disclosed their intended plans for future work tended to select larger pictures. In their minds, they’d already accomplished the work they intended to do!

So, if publically announcing our goals makes us complacent, then what works? In behavioral economics, there’s a concept called a “commitment device.”

Commitment devices

One of the oldest (albeit fictional) examples of a commitment device, Odysseus tied himself to his ship's mast so he wouldn't be entranced by the siren's song.

One of the oldest (albeit fictional) examples of a commitment device, Odysseus tied himself to his ship’s mast so he wouldn’t be entranced by the siren’s song.

RescueTime recently partnered with Cornell researcher Richard Patterson to learn how online distractions like social media websites impact the performance of people participating in online study courses. The Washington Post did a great write-up on Patterson’s research and findings, and it’s well worth a read. In a nutshell, Patterson asked RescueTime to create a set of tools that students could use to increase their chances of completing a massive open online course (MOOC).

MOOCs are increasingly popular web-based classes that rely almost entirely on student self-management for completion. They are generally free to enroll in and there’s no penalty for dropping out, so there’s not really much pressure on students to complete the course of study. MOOCs might not be a perfect analog for the workplace. Still, they provide a nice platform for monitoring performance, and Patterson selected a Stanford University statistics MOOC to study over 650 students.

Patterson broke the students into four groups:

  • Group 1: A control group that took the class as normal without the use of a RescueTime commitment device
  • Group 2: Received a notification after each 30 period spent on distracting websites
  • Group 3: Allowed students to block distracting websites for 15, 30, or 60 minute periods when logged into the online course
  • Group 4: Allowed students to set timed, daily limits for how long they could use distracting websites before RescueTime blocked them

Completion rates for MOOCs are generally quite low. According to The Washington Post, some studies show completion rates less than 10 percent, so expectations were low for the control group.

Interestingly, the group that received notifications after each half hour on distracting sites was no more likely to complete the course than the control group. Frequent reminders don’t appear to be any better at improving performance than public announcement of goals.

Students in the third group, those who were allowed to voluntarily block distracting sites, showed a slight increase in performance.

The real game changer, however, was the tool that blocked distracting sites for those students in the fourth group. Remember that these students allowed themselves some latitude to wander and explore online. However, they set limits for themselves and trusted the software to keep them honest about it. This delayed enforcement seemed to pay off, and Patterson reported the group received higher grades, experienced a 24 percent increase in time spent working and was 40 percent more likely finish the course!

The big take away from Patterson’s MOOC study is that people, as a whole, are really terrible at policing ourselves in the moment. Whether responding to a reminder to get back on task or cutting ourselves off from distraction when we sit down to work, we’re are impressively good at putting off productive effort for whimsical distractions.

The cool thing about the commitment device that worked for Patterson’s subject group is that users still get all the blissful immediate gratification of procrastination. We can set limits on how much time we allow ourselves to indulge in online dalliances, but the enforcement of those limits is something in the future. There’s no immediate cost to it, and we’re more likely to volunteer to have those distractions taken away from us later.

RescueTime users can schedule alerts that can block distracting websites. Try out different tolerance levels for how long you’ll allow yourself to be distracted before your chronic distractions get locked out. Similarly, play around with how long those sites remained blocked.

Currently, I have a 30-minute focus time set up before RescueTime will let me digress away from work again. I’ve been running that alert all month and I know it’s already saved me on several occasions when the day could otherwise have slipped away from me.

Try it out, and let us know if you have tips or tricks that help keep you both driven and focused on accomplishing your goals.