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Education Bookcast

Feb 29, 2016

Psychological "urban myths" come in a few flavours. Some, such as the idea that high self-esteem leads to less violent behaviour, are so completely, hilariously, overwhelmingly, unambiguously wrong* that you'd be hard-pressed to make up something so deliciously ironic. Others, such as the idea of "motivating" people with contingent external rewards, are deeply flawed, though not utterly wrong under all circumstances**. Then there are the cases where the popular thinking may be more or less right, but the benefits have been overstated and costs overlooked. This article targets one such case.


The power of a clear goal is regularly extolled by people from fields as disparate as game design and life coaching, and has a significant body of scientific evidence going for it. In particular, specific and challenging goals are thought to be the best kind. Specific goals allow for clear feedback, another powerful feature of good learning and work environments. For example, "go to the gym three times a week" is something that you can be clear about whether you're achieving, in a way in which "exercise more" doesn't allow you to be. Challenging goals encourage you to stretch yourself, to get the most out of yourself while not being so difficult that you abandon hope of achieving them.


What could possibly be wrong with this? Lisa Ordóñez and her co-authors consider a number of problems. I counted seven, which neatly fits in with Snow White's seven dwarves, except that I had to give them different, rather more unfortunate names. Specific, challenging goals [dwarves] can do the following:

1. Degrade performance ['underachiever'];

2. Shift of focus away from other important goals ['absent-minded'];

3. Harm personal relationships ['tactless'];

4. Corrode organisational culture ['antisocial'];

5. Motivate risky and unethical behaviours ['thoughtless'];

6. Inhibit learning ['rigid']; and

7. Harm intrinsic motivation ['ennui'].


In reading the paper one thing in particular struck me: there were no nasty side-effects of goals that were challenging but not specific. It was the specificity of goals that was causing all the above problems. Challenge could cause specific goals to "go wild" even more, but on its own, challenge doesn't seem to be causing these ill effects.


So how do we square the above side-effects with the known benefits of specific, challenging goals? The authors give us the following analogy: although a strong medicine may be very good at curing a disease, giving it to a healthy person would only make them feel worse due to the side effects. Similarly, specific and challenging goals should be given out carefully, only in situations where they are needed and can fix a problem, rather than willy-nilly to everyone, even those who are already performing well.


Enjoy the episode.


*Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem. Roy Baumeister, Laura Smart, and Joseph Boden, Psychological Review, 1996.

**See Drive (episode 2 of this podcast) and Punished by Rewards (episodes 5a and 5b).