Career & Success

Why Do We Avoid Information Right When We Need It Most?

Comparing ourselves to others can help us meet goals — especially if the timing’s right.

February 13, 2018

| by Louise Lee

A woman runner wearing a fitness tracker stops to tie her shoe | iStock/monkeybusinessimages

Doesn’t matter if you’re ahead or behind — knowing where you stand against competitors adds motivation. | iStock/monkeybusinessimages

Thanks to the explosive growth of performance-monitoring mobile devices and apps, it’s never been easier to track our progress in pursuit of a specific goal. Yet whether we’re trying to lose weight, save money, wrap up a project, or accumulate points in a loyalty program, we frequently avoid that information to our detriment, says Szu-chi Huang, associate professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

In a paper titled “Social Information Avoidance: When, Why, and How It Is Costly in Goal Pursuit,” soon to be published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Huang found that people avoid information about others pursuing the same goal, particularly in the middle stages of an endeavor, out of fear that they’ll “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.

Researchers have long known that people’s motivation to achieve specific goals declines when they’re around the middle of the endeavor, 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,” says Huang. “If we don’t leverage it when we need it the most, we risk losing motivation completely.”

Huang’s research has applications for consumers and marketers who want to figure out how best to harness their ever-expanding access to performance-related social data. Rather than signing up for a continuous stream of information, consumers should seek it out when they need it most: in the middle of a pursuit. And companies that don’t want to bombard customers might provide only, say, a “push” notification just when it’s most useful to customers.

How the Experiments Worked

In one experiment examining how people avoid social information, participants played 10 rounds of the Wii video bowling game, aiming to score a challenging 120 points. Using a camera to track players’ head movements, Huang found that participants avoided other bowling players’ scores, which were shown on screens placed nearby, especially during the middle rounds of the game.

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. No matter what you find out, it’s going to help boost your motivation.
Szu-chi Huang

In another experiment involving a dice game, when participants were forced to view their peers’ scores (shown at the center of the game screen), their motivation increased, thereby boosting their chances of persisting and reaching their goal. In the game, the longer a player waited before rolling the dice, the higher the potential score. Players who saw other players’ information had higher motivation — as measured by the amount of time they waited before rolling the dice — than those who didn’t see it.

In the dice game, of those players who were forced to view their peers’ scores, some were shown information about overperforming players while others were shown information about underperforming players. In both cases, motivation increased. “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,” Huang says. “No matter what you find out, it’s going to help boost your motivation.”

Motivated by Values

Huang also found that with some positive coaching, individuals can be encouraged to look at social information on their own. In a field experiment involving an exercise program, some participants initially performed a “self-affirmation exercise” in which they wrote down their values — such as family or pursuit of knowledge — and described why these were important to them. When most people were stuck in the middle phase of the exercise program, those who had performed this writing exercise were far more likely to view social information, and consequently reported higher motivation to achieve the goal of walking 100,000 steps over two weeks.

“By making people think about the values they hold closely and why those are important to them, they feel stronger against comparisons and threats, so they felt better about themselves and more comfortable about looking at how others are doing,” says Huang.

People know information is everywhere but don’t realize when they need it most, Huang says. So read that notification that pops up on your screen when you’re at the halfway point, because it may help you regain your motivation to reach the finish line. “That’s the whole reason you bought the device or signed up for the program to begin with,” she adds.

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