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I am sitting in McDonalds as I write this. I just ate two oatmeals and had a milk. That is exactly what I intended to do.

But I almost went for the sausage McMuffin ...

You sit on the couch and watch people cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon. You tune into “The Biggest Loser” and see contestants drop pounds. Your coworker lands a big job promotion.

Does watching someone complete a goal motivate us to complete a similar goal?  How do the goals of others impact our own efforts?  

Idaho State University assistant psychology professor, Kathleen McCulloch explores these questions in an article titled “Vicarious goal satiation” in the May issue, (volume 47, issue 3)  of  the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

McCulloch collaborated on the study with Grainne Fitzsimons of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business; Sook Ning Chua of McGill University; and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The article suggests that observing others pursue goals can, in some circumstances, undermine the observer’s motivation, according to Idaho State University Marketing and Communications.

How so? What McCulloch calls the “couch potato effect” may have something to do with it. “I got this idea because so many people sit on the couch and passively view sports.  Why don’t they get up and do something about it?” she wondered.

This makes sense. It is the reason why Local Joe, who doesn't care much for them college folk, identifies so strongly with the Boise State Broncos. He even cries when they lose. I've seen it.

The researchers theorized that passive viewing—watching from the sofa or sidelines—may likely satiate the urge to complete a similar goal.  “It’s something that happens nonconsciously,” said McCulloch.  

To test the hypothesis, McCulloch and her colleagues conducted experiments in which participants observed varying degrees of goal pursuit, such as the completion of an anagram task and a scenario that involved an employee’s quest to obtain a signature from a manager.

We find that watching others perform and complete a goal leads to less striving on that same goal by the viewer. In other words, seeing the other person successfully complete a task renders the viewer less motivated, said McCulloch.

 “Our findings have important implications for the workplace,” researcher Fitzsimons said.

One employee’s success could easily undermine the performance of others by leading to a false sense of progress, so managers should be careful with their public feedback. It is crucial that employees feel a sense of ownership over their own work only, and aren’t fooled into feeling complacent because they’re part of a successful team, she continued.  

There is a body of evidence to support McCulloch findings. And article called See Salad, Eat Fries: When Healthy Menus Backfire from Science Daily states:

Just seeing a salad on the menu seems to push some consumers to make a less healthy meal choice, according to a Duke University researcher.

It's an effect called "vicarious goal fulfillment," in which a person can feel a goal has been met if they have taken some small action, like considering the salad without ordering it, said Gavan Fitzsimons, professor of marketing and psychology at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, who led the research.

Consumers may feel they have fulfilled a healthy eating goal even if they choose an unhealthy food, and the presence of a healthy option among food choices may draw their attention to the least-healthy choice available, according to authors Keith Wilcox (City University of New York), Beth Vallen (Loyola College), Lauren Block (City University of New York), and Gavan J. Fitzsimons (Duke University).

An article from Cognitive Design states:

A growing number of studies reveal an important new class of self-regulation failure called vicarious goal fulfillment. Interestingly, those that rate high in measures of self-control are especially susceptible.  Most importantly for cognitive designers,  this effect can be triggered when we are trying to design solutions for helping people improve self control!

Those who rate high in self control are especially susceptible.

So I guess I don't have as much to worry about.


Here is the link to the release from the Idaho State University website:

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