Buddy Up for Success: How Pursuing Goals with Friends Can Boost Motivation and Achievement

Setting goals is easy, but sticking to them can be a challenge. Whether it’s weekly targets, annual resolutions, or five-year plans, many of us struggle to stay on track. However, new field research by Assistant Professor Rachel Gershon, published in Management Science, suggests that pursuing goals with friends may be the key to making them more attainable.

The Power of Social Incentives

Gershon, along with Cynthia Cryder of Washington University and Katy Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania, conducted an experiment focusing on gym attendance. They found that going to the gym with a friend—even with the hurdles of coordinating two schedules—increased visits by 35%.

“Despite adding the friction of working with another person, we saw people becoming more motivated and more likely to go,” Gershon says. “This illuminates how social incentives, which aren’t always taken into consideration, can help people overcome other barriers that stand in their way.”

The experiment involved two groups of participants who paired up with a friend for a “Gym Bonus Month.” One group received a $1 Amazon gift card for each visit to the gym, regardless of their friend’s activity; the other group only received the dollar if the two of them went together. The latter group doubled how often they went together and increased their overall gym visits by 35%.

Accountability and Enjoyment: The Benefits of Social Goal Pursuit

Gershon and her colleagues concluded that the logistical costs of coordinating with someone else were eclipsed by two benefits. First, people enjoyed their visits more when the event was social, which made future visits more likely. Second, they felt a greater sense of accountability when meeting their friend at the gym.

“Our study identifies two types of accountability,” Gershon says. “People feel responsible to their friends, as they wanted them to get the reward, but they may also have reputational concerns that their friends would think less of them if they didn’t follow through.”

Interestingly, when surveyed about which condition they would prefer to be part of, more than 80% of participants said they would rather not have to coordinate their visits with a friend. This suggests that people might readily see the drawbacks of coordinated visits but not recognize the potential benefits, from increasing motivation to creating stronger social bonds.

The findings also present implications for referrals, another area that Gershon studies. “There are all sorts of contexts where people are trying to start a new hobby, a new exercise routine, and companies can encourage them through social networks,” she says. “This work shows that referrals may be a way for companies to not only engage additional customers, but to also increase the motivation of current customers.”

Friends with Health Benefits: A Field Experiment, Rachel Gershon, Cynthia Cryder, and Katherine L. Milkman
Management Science, April 2024

Keyword/Phrase: Social Goal Pursuit

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