By Emma Young
Say you’re planning to run a marathon, and you have a target time in mind. Or you’re on a weight- loss diet, and your aim is to lose six kilos in six weeks. Or, there’s an exam coming up, and you want to score above 75 per cent. These are all individual goal pursuits. In theory, you’re not in direct competition with anybody else, though of course if you’re part of a running club, or a weight loss group, or an undergraduate class, you will be aware that others around you are striving to achieve their own goals.
There’s plenty of evidence that sharing your own goals and hearing about other people’s can be helpful – in providing mutual encouragement, emotional support and motivation. However, a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows how, in certain circumstances, we can’t help ourselves from competing with others – an effect that can be surprisingly counterproductive. The findings suggest that when we’re paired with an individual striving for a similar goal and who is similarly able, we begin to view this other person as an opponent – leading us to sabotage their efforts, ultimately to the detriment of our own performance.
“Pursuing individual goals together with others can at times lead to counter-productive behaviours that not only harm others but also harm oneself,” report Szu-chi Huang at Stanford University, and her colleagues.
The researchers ran six experiments. In the first, 200 participants performed rounds of a “word creativity” task, in which they had to make make as many words as possible from a string of letters. They were told they were paired with a “partner” (in fact, a fictional person) who had done slightly better on each round. The participants were given their own personal goal: if they created enough words, they’d be rewarded with a gift card. Another detail is that participants were also able to make the tasks harder or easier for their partner – an opportunity they exploited. Even though their partner’s performance was technically irrelevant to their own goal pursuit, as participants got close to achieving their goal, they tended to choose to make the task harder for their partner – “sabotaging” their partner’s chances. What’s more, after doing this, the participants eased up on their own efforts – they “coasted”.
Subsequent experiments, some involving other tasks (such as a card game), revealed that the pattern of getting close to a personal goal, sabotaging one’s partner, then coasting, happened whether the participants were led to believe they were slightly ahead of or slightly behind their partner. However, a further study revealed that only participants who believed their sabotaging efforts were successful eased up on their own efforts.
The researchers write: “This study thus provided further support that the main purpose of sabotage was to ‘take the opponent down’ a notch; when this positional gain was plausibly realised, people relaxed their effort, even though their sabotaging act did nothing to advance their own individual goal.”
Huang and her colleagues said their findings suggest that when we perform alongside other people who share similar goals to us, we can’t help ourselves from becoming competitive, which shifts our focus from bettering ourselves to defeating our “opponent”, and then relaxing our own efforts. “This is unexpectedly counterproductive to the attainment of people’s own individual goals,” the researchers note.
The work contributes to a growing field of research on the social side of goal pursuit. It seems that although we can help each other in the early stages of own parallel journeys, these relationships can become harmful when our goal comes into sight. Being aware of this may help you to understand when to stop paying attention to other people’s progress, and to focus on keeping your own efforts up.