Does Announcing Your Goals Help You Succeed?

Imagine being at one of those rare junctures in life where you make a major personal commitment: You decide you're going to become a vegan and take up yoga, or earn a million bucks by the time you're 40, or become a scientist or lawyer. Difficult things, things that take a lot of effort. It's a bold step just to declare these goals and plans and intentions privately. But what's the best chance for upping your chances for success? Do you publicly announce your epiphany, and include your family and friends and colleagues in your dream? Or should you just put your head down and do all the hard work without fanfare?

Traditional thinking has held that it's best to make a public declaration, maybe even more than one. Enlisting others in your hopes will shore up your intentions, and motivate you to work toward your new-found goal. But is this folk wisdom sound? Psychologists have been exploring this question, and some recent studies are now raising doubts about the "going public" strategy. Indeed, it appears that some people may mistake the talking for the doing—and end up failing for lack of hard work.

New York University psychologist Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues ran a number of experiments to test this notion. Here's an example: the psychologists recruited a group of law students and had them rate a series of statements from "definitely yes" to "definitely no"—statements like: "I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law." But some of the law students merely dropped the anonymous questionnaire into a box while others went over their answers with the experimenter. The idea was to create a laboratory version of the public pronouncement: that is, some made their intention to intensify their studies known while others kept their intentions private.

Then the researchers created a sham situation to measure the students' actual effort. Specifically, they asked for the students' help in a project that required analyzing 20 very difficult criminal-law cases. The students were told to work as hard as they could, but they were also told they could quit whenever they wanted. The psychologists measured the actual work of both those who "went public" and those who did not.

The results were unambiguous. Although all of the law students were highly committed to a career in law, only those who kept their hopes private actually did the hard work needed to achieve that goal. As described in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who had made their intentions known to the experimenter—that is, to the public—failed to follow through with intensity. They talked the talk, but given the opportunity to walk the walk, they dodged it.

Why would this be? Gollwitzer thinks it has to do with sense of identity and wholeness. We all want to be an idealized person, and declaring our intentions to work hard is a symbolic act. It contributes to the goal of completing who we are, which in this case would be something like: I am a lawyer, a legal thinker, a jurist. The psychologists ran another experiment to see if in fact this was the underlying psychological dynamic at work.

They stuck with the law students for this experiment, as well. In this case, the researchers asked the students to write out the three specific things they intended to do to help them become successful attorneys. A typical answer might be: "I intend to read law periodicals regularly." Similar to the earlier experiment, some of the students shared their strategies with other law students, while others did not.

Then they took an unusual test. They were shown five photographs of a Supreme Court justice, varying in size from quite small to large, and they were asked: "How much do you feel like a jurist right now?" They had to respond by selecting one of the five photos. This well-tested procedure taps into automatic, unconscious self-evaluations: the larger the picture you pick, the more complete you feel. The idea was to see how much publicly declaring their intentions (or not) made them feel like an icon of modern jurisprudence.

In keeping with Gollwitzer's theory, those law students who had publicly announced their plan to read law journals and so forth tended to pick the larger pictures of their legal role models. That is, simply stating a strategy for becoming a good lawyer made them feel like they were real lawyers, and this inflated self-image paradoxically made them less hard working. They had become legends in their own minds, and legends don't have to get down and dirty.

Wray Herbert writes the We're Only Human blog.