Don’t Look Down: But Don’t Look up Either

Friends helping friends

by Amanda

Have you ever found the urge to compare yourself to others, or to look at the work of your peers in order to gain motivation and inspiration? You might even think that competing with your friends is a good thing, yet new research suggests it can do more harm than good.

A recent study exploring this—one conducted by Todd Rogers, associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and Avi Feller, assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley—found that when people are exposed to practices that praise the exemplary accomplishments of peers, they are more likely to have reduced motivation in completing and achieving their own work goals. In other words, when we see the excellent work of our peers being held up as an example, it can reduce our motivation rather than increase it. While it’s easy to think that publicly praising good examples of peer work should be an encouraging and motivating practice, new research clearly proves otherwise.

Leaders and companies regularly celebrate the excellent accomplishments of their more exemplary workers and students publicly, often hoping it will spark motivation and encourage others to reach the same levels of productivity. To find out whether it really does, the researchers observed and studied a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC ). They randomly split students into two groups—one group meant to assess average peer essays, while the other assessed above average peer work. Those who had been assigned to assess above average peer essays were dramatically more likely to fall behind and/or quit the course.

To follow up, researchers conducted an experiment which simulated a MOOC setting, in which they discovered that those assessing the more excellent peer essays mistakenly thought those essays must have been the norm, although they were much higher than the norm. Much like in the original MOOC setting, these students then expressed more disinterest in the task at hand than the students assessing average essays, and they too were more likely to quit the course. The researchers concluded that exposing students and workers to especially exemplary work or accomplishments is dramatically more discouraging to learners than exposing them to more “attainable social comparisons.”

Could this be similar to another phenomenon called “learned helplessness?” Learned helplessness is a form of giving up, and it is commonly seen when people have been repeatedly unsuccessful in reaching a goal, and as a result, they are conditioned to see it as unattainable.

The researchers do not make that connection, but given their findings, it’s easy to see how this effect applies in the world of not only education but the average workplace and work or learning environment. This research could have very important implications in real world settings since peer assessment is becoming a bigger part of both online and offline education. “Exemplar discouragement is powerful: Real students who assessed exemplary peers’ essays are substantially less likely to earn course credit than those who assessed average peers’ essays,” wrote Rogers and Feller. In their opinion, it’s also important for leaders and organizations to examine their motivational practices and patterns, and recognize where these practices can be rather discouraging.

So if comparing yourself to your peers isn’t helpful, what can you and your friends do instead to help one another improve? Peer encouragement is important, so one idea is to help your friends appreciate their own positive efforts and if you’d rather, you may even work together. Studies show that what makes us more productive is not competition, but our level of happiness, and what makes us happiest is our empathic connections with others. Working with others, giving to others, showing gratitude to others, and generally nurturing our relationships is what makes human beings mentally and physically healthy and happy—and successful.

So stop comparing yourself to your friends, classmates, and others in your peer group, and start reaching out to them instead. You will find you are better able to accomplish your goals when you develop empathy rather than competition.

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