October 22, 2018

Does Sharing Goals Help or Hurt Your Chances of Success?

So you’ve decided you want to learn data science. Should you share your goals on social media or with an accountability buddy? Or should you work in silence until you’ve learned enough to call yourself a data scientist?

Psychology research suggests that sharing your goals may have an impact on your chances of actually achieving them. But be warned: there’s no easy “share/don’t share” answer here. The psychology of sharing, it turns out, is a bit more complicated than that.

(Warning: since we’re talking about scientific studies, almost every link in this article is a PDF link).

Should you share with an “accountability buddy”?

Conventional wisdom says that sharing is a good idea, because having someone to hold you accountable can help you accomplish your goals. Research suggests that’s true, but only under certain conditions. This meta analysis of a variety of goal-tracking and sharing studies shows that the impact of accountability can vary pretty significantly depending on who is holding you accountable and what kind of accountability we’re talking about.

As far as the who goes, your accountability buddy should probably be a friend. Studies like this one suggest that it can actually be de-motivating when your progress is monitored by a stranger. Moreover, sharing with a friend may be correlated with higher success rates. This recent study run by Dr. Gail Matthews (PDF link) found that subjects who told a friend about their commitment to a goal were more likely to achieve it than those who didn’t.

And it shouldn’t be just any friend. Studies like this one suggest that getting feedback from someone who will give you process praise (praise based on your effort and what you’ve actually done) will lead to better outcomes for you than reporting to someone who gives you person praise (praise based on your innate abilities or identity).

In other words, you want a friend who’ll say, “Wow, you worked really hard on that!” rather than “Wow, you’re so smart!” In fact, having someone who gives you person praise (“You’re so smart!”) is probably worse than getting no feedback at all. If you’re consistently told that your success is due to innate talent, when you encounter challenges and failures, you’re more likely to see it as an innate deficiency on your part, rather than something that might be overcome with more effort or better strategies.

You also want to find a friend who’s willing to cater their feedback to your needs, because your needs are likely to change as you progress through your studies. Researchers have found that early in the process of learning something new, it’s best to recieve positive feedback. But the more experienced you become, the more you’ll respond to negative feedback.

The reason for this is that typically in the early stages of a new project or course of study, our self-assessment will be focused on how committed we’ve been. Positive feedback helps us affirm and solidify that commitment. But as we get further along, we tend to shift towards assessing actual progress. At that point, getting negative feedback tends to result in better outcomes because it pushes us to keep up the effort. Positive feedback at that stage can cause us to take our feet off the gas.

In summary: sharing with someone else probably helps if that someone is a friend, and may be particularly helpful if that friend is careful to give you process praise rather than praising your innate qualities, and is willing to switch from focusing on positive feedback to more negative feedback as you progress through your studies.


What should you share?

So you’ve found the right friend to be your accountability buddy. Now, what do you actually tell them? That matters too. In the Matthews study mentioned above, subjects who shared their goals with a friend were more likely to succeed than those who didn’t, but subjects who regularly gave their friends written progress reports were even more likely to meet their goals.

That’s likely a reflection of a broader idea suggested in the psychology literature. Being held accountable to a process is probably preferable to being held accountable to an outcome. Studies like this one and That’s probably because being held accountable to an outcome encourages you to justify whatever you’ve done in the context of the outcome you’re meant to produce, rather than honestly evaluating your actions. It may cause you to continue pushing towards that outcome even after it becomes clear that adjusting your goals would be more beneficial.

Being held accountable to a process, on the other hand, is associated with better results because it commits you to doing the work but leaves you free to critically assess and make logical adjustments to your goals as you progress.

In other words: don’t tell your friend you’re going to become a data scientist. Tell them that you’re going to spend 10 hours studying and coding each week (and then send them weekly updates about what you did).

And there’s another reason you shouldn’t tell friends your goal is to become a data scientist. For many of us, becoming a data scientist is a career goal, but it’s also an identity goal—we like the idea of being perceived as a data scientist by others. That desire to affect a change in our identity can be a motivating force that helps push us towards our goal. But a recent study study suggests that sharing identity goals publicly can undermine them. When you say you’re planning to become a data scientist, people may begin to see you as a data scientist before you’ve actually become one (and you may begin to see yourself that way, too). That feeling of being a data scientist is part of the reward you’re working towards, so if you’re already getting a bit of it before reaching your goal, you may have less internal motivation to follow through.

To review: the lesson here is that if you’re going to share, you should share process goals about the work you’ve committed to doing.

What about social media?

When it comes to social media sharing, the answer is significantly muddier.

The broader research discussed above suggests that social media sharing might be a bad idea since it’s sharing with strangers rather than friends, and it gives you very little chance to regulate whether the type of feedback you get is helpful or not. Additionally, studies like this suggest that hearing about competition may discourage students from learning, and social media is full of stories about other people studying and succeeding.

On the other hand, none of those studies have looked at social media specifically (and many of them were conducted before it even existed). And there are studies that have looked at social media sharing and found correlations between social sharing and goal achievement. This study on weight loss, for example, found that engaging with the Twitter community and sharing progress and tips on social media was associated with effective weight loss.

However, it’s not clear to what extent those results might depend on the specific community being engaged, and whether or not they might be offset by the negative effects of being exposed to competition (which there is plenty of in a growing field like data science). When it comes to social media, the only thing we can really be sure if is that more study is needed.


Before we get too carried away, some important caveats:

  1. A few scientific studies don’t prove anything, and psychology — like all fields of scientific study — is an evolving field where the prevailing ideas can change as new information comes to light.
  2. Everybody’s different, and what works best for you might not be the same thing that has worked best for the majority of these study participants over the years.
  3. We’re just talking about optimizing your chances here. The most crucial factor in determining your success is going to be the amount of effort you put in. At best, tips like these can give you a minor statistical edge.

With all of that said, if you want to maximize your chances of meeting your goals, it seems like you should share them, but in doing so, you should follow these guidelines:

  • Share with a friend, not a stranger. If possible, choose someone who’s willing to accommodate your requests when giving you feedback (see numbers 4 and 5 below) or they might end up causing more harm than they offer help.
  • Share process goals, not outcomes or identities. Don’t tell your friends you plan to be a data scientist in four months. Tell them you plan to do 10 hours of studying, coding, and project-building per week.
  • Check in frequently with written updates.
  • Ask for “process praise” rather than “person praise” or choose a friend who’s going to be naturally inclined to compliment your effort or the strategy you employed in completing a task, rather than complimenting your innate intelligence or talents.
  • Ask for positive feedback at first, and negative feedback later on.
  • Make your own call on social media, but avoid focusing on competition. Particularly in the early days, you want to be thinking about what you’re doing, not what others are doing.

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Charlie Custer

About the author

Charlie Custer

Charlie is a student of data science, and also a content marketer at Dataquest. In his free time, he's learning to mountain bike and making videos about it.