In a paper titled “Social Information Avoidance: When, Why, and How It Is Costly in Goal Pursuit,” published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Stanford Graduate School of Business Associate Professor of Marketing Szu-Chi Huang found that people avoid information about others pursuing the same goal, particularly in the middle stages of an endeavour, out of fear that they will “look bad” by comparison. But that intermediate period is precisely when people need that comparative data the most. Indeed, when individuals did view social information during that middle stage, their motivation rose.
"Each year, we ambitiously set goals to improve certain nagging aspects of our lives," said Professor Szu-Chi Huang, Stanford Graduate School of Business. "However, as our motivation wanes, inevitably many of us fail. Research shows that when people track the progress of their peers via channels like social media or wearable devices, their competitive drive kicks in and they are more likely to overcome slumps and increase their chances of success. But, when they get too competitive and try to sabotage others, they could end up losing motivation themselves."
Researchers have long known that people’s motivation to achieve specific goals declines when they are around the middle of the endeavour, raising their risk of abandoning the entire effort. That’s because, at that point, people lack a motivating “anchor”: The excitement of getting started has faded, while the finish line is nowhere in sight. “Social information helps us when we are stuck in the middle,” said Huang. “If we don’t leverage it when we need it the most, we risk losing motivation completely.”
In her research, Huang found that people who use Fitbits to reach their goals are more likely to stop wearing them halfway to their goal. In fact, one in three Fitbit users is likely to abandon their device within six months of purchase.
“Learning about those outperforming you encourages you to want to catch up with them, and knowing about those behind you makes you want to keep pushing to maintain your lead,” said Huang. “No matter what you find out, it’s going to help boost your motivation.”