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Seeing others succeed may hinder personal success, study shows

Studying with a highly motivated friend may not be as inspiring as many students may think, according to a recent study.

Funded by grants from Idaho State University’s WE LEAD program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, a team of researchers—including one from Duke—has found that watching others complete their goals may impact individual goal pursuit.

“[The results of the study] attest to the idea that things that are going on around us that we’re not aware of can actually undermine our behavior,” said Kathleen McCulloch, assistant professor in experimental psychology at Idaho State University. “Watching somebody else accomplish your goal could lead you to be unmotivated.”

She added that the study builds on the ideas of goal contagion, or the idea that goals, too, can be contagious.

The study—which involved more than 300 individuals—had two main components, said Grainne Fitzsimons, an associate professor in the Fuqua School of Business.

In the first experiment, individuals worked on an attention task on a computer before completing an anagram. While completing the first task, the first group of observers saw an embedded video on a screen displaying a pair of hands completing the same anagram, a second group never saw the hands complete the task and a third group did not watch a video.

Those who watched the hands successfully finish the anagram were 72 percent correct in completing their own identical task while those who did not see the hands complete the task were 77.2 percent correct, McCulloch said. The participants who never viewed the embedded video scored an average of 78.6 percent.

“What we saw in the people who watched the hands complete the task [was that] they didn’t work as hard when they were given a chance to do the task themselves,” Fitzsimons said.

The second experiment involved individuals reading a story about a character searching for his manager, and the research subjects were then given a word completion task and had to fill in letters to form a word. Participants who read the story without being interrupted filled in letters that formed fewer words related to the story than did those who were interrupted and never finished the ending, in which the manager was found.

“We were interested in showing more cognitive evidence that the goal was actually being inhibited,” Fitzsimons said.

Words chosen by participants often reflected what was most accessible in their minds, Fitzsimons said, meaning that the results indicated that only those who read the incomplete story—in which the goal was still ongoing—had picked up the character’s goal of finding his manager.

The researchers noted that the study has implications in both the workplace and in interpersonal relationships.

“Often, people substitute talking for action,” McCulloch said. “If given [positive] feedback, some people might become vicariously satisfied even though they haven’t done anything at all.”

Many students agreed that social environments may affect goal pursuit, but some expressed skepticism at the study’s results.

“Some people are less influenced by their environments, [but] others may be affected more positively or negatively,” said sophomore Esther Lho.

Ciera Price, also a sophomore, said that as “an extremely competitive person”, seeing other people succeed would only motivate her to achieve her own goals.

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