We can't achieve our goals without making some effort. Summoning the willpower to put things in place and see them through can be tough. A recent study suggests that under certain conditions, we're willing to surrender motivational responsibility in the hope that our support networks will pick up the slack.
Gráine Fitzsimons and Eli Finkel looked at planned health behaviours across several experiments. Female participants were firstly asked to provide an example of their life partner helping them to fulfil a goal, either related to their health or, as a control condition, their career. They then rated how much time and effort they intended to put toward their future health goals. Those that recalled their partner helping with health goals slacked off, committing to less effort for the future. (We could think of this as the Jiminy Cricket gambit.)
To better understand the effect, the investigators evaluated depletion theory, which proposes that our capacity to self-regulate is a resource that is eaten up by use. In one of the experiments, participants completed an easy or tricky typing task before giving their examples and ratings; the tasks were designed to deplete a little or a lot of regulation effort. The slacking-off effect was greater and more significant for those in the tricky task condition, suggesting that being short on resources makes you more willing to let another shoulder the strain.
Another experiment examining academic goals found that considering partner support leads us to throw cautious willpower conservation strategies out of the window. Here, students of both sexes were given a fun puzzle to play before a valuable but taxing task that researchers claimed would benefit future test-taking. Half the participants were warned the puzzle would soak up effort needed for the taxing task, and they strategically spent less time on the puzzle, hoarding their efforts for later – unless, that is, they’d been asked at the experiment start to think about their life partner helping them in academic situations.
Personal goal-setting at work commonly involves identifying others who can support your goal. This is intended to enable and encourage, but this research demonstrates the possibility of perverse effects. However, it doesn't differentiate between support for activities that were possible anyway ( getting up for a 6am run) from support that provides a platform for further progress (sign-off for a work shadowing exercise). I suspect the latter, enabling support is genuinely motivating as it decreases, rather than increases, excuses for inaction.
Regardless, it’s clear that under some conditions we let others act as our conscience while we decrease our motivational efforts. We can resist this, by making it clear from the outset that we alone are responsible for success. Or, like Fitzsimons and Finkel, we could take a more celebratory view, seeing that “partners may develop shared self-regulatory systems” that allow them “to best make use of their limited self-control resources over time.” But we should definitely keep an eye on this tendency. Preferably you, if you have a minute.
Fitzsimons, G., & Finkel, E. (2011). Outsourcing Self-Regulation Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610397955