Skip to content
Smart Skills

Share your ⁠goals ⁠— but only with certain people, study says

A new study contradicts some popular wisdom that says sharing your goals is always a bad idea.


Key Takeaways
  • A 2009 study and a 2010 TED talk have helped spread the idea that sharing your goals is a bad idea because it disincentives people.
  • The study found that people who shared their goals with people whom they considered to be of higher status were more likely to achieve their goals.
  • However, it’s possible that caring too much about the opinions of higher-status people might make you too anxious to achieve your goals.

Should you share goals or keep them private? You’ll find conflicting answers if you turn to Google. Some will tell you sharing goals is good because it makes you more accountable to others, and you’ll be incentivized to follow through. But others say sharing goals is counterproductive in terms of incentivizing yourself because you’ll feel rewarded before actually doing anything to achieve them.

That you should keep goals to yourself isn’t a new idea. The Arabs have for centuries voiced a similar message in the proverb “the more you surround your candle, the more it remains lit.” More recently, the idea became widespread in 2009 when psychologists published a study titled “When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?“, and also in 2010 with a TED talk titled “Keep your goals to yourself.

But now, a new study published online in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that the best approach might lie somewhere in the middle of these two camps: Share your goals, but only with people whom you perceive as being of a higher status than yourself.

“Contrary to what you may have heard, in most cases you get more benefit from sharing your goal than if you don’t – as long as you share it with someone whose opinion you value,” Howard Klein, lead author of the new study and professor of management and human resources at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, told Ohio State News.

Klein and his colleagues conducted several studies on goal-sharing in their study. In one, the results showed that working adults frequently do share goals and were more likely to be committed to achieving those goals when they’re shared with people whom are perceived to be of higher status.

A second study involved 171 undergraduate students who were asked to play a game in which they had to move a bar on a computer screen as quickly as possible within the allotted time. After the first round, the students were asked to play the game again, but this time they had to set a goal. The researchers separated the students into three groups.

For one group, the students had to share their goals with someone whom students perceived to be of higher status than themselves: a lab assistant who was dressed in a suit and introduced himself as a doctoral-level student in the business school who was an expert on the topic. For another group, the lab assistant was of relatively lower status: a casually dressed man who identified himself as a student at a local community college. A third group wasn’t asked to share their goal with anyone.

The results showed that people who shared their goal with the high-status person not only showed higher commitment to achieving the goal, but also performed better in the game. Meanwhile, the two other groups showed similar commitment and performance.

“If you don’t care about the opinion of whom you tell, it doesn’t affect your desire to persist – which is really what goal commitment is all about,” Klein said. “You want to be dedicated and unwilling to give up on your goal, which is more likely when you share that goal with someone you look up to.”

Another study showed explored “evaluation apprehension,” defined as how much the participants cared about what the lab assistant thought of them. The results showed that people who said they cared more about the lab assistant’s opinion were more committed and performed better on the test. But while coming off in a favorable light to someone whose opinion you value might incentivize you to achieve your goals, Klein did offer a note of caution.

“We didn’t find it in this study, but it is possible that you may create so much anxiety in trying to impress someone that it could interfere with your performance,” he said.

Results showed that people were motivated by sharing a goal with someone they thought had higher status because they cared about how that higher-status person would evaluate them.

“You don’t want them to think less of you because you didn’t attain your goal,” Klein said.


Up Next