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Perils of empathy: How day-to-day conversations impact your goals — Pop Economics

Perils of empathy: How day-to-day conversations impact your goals

by Pop on October 22, 2010

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Just talking about something can feel like doing it.

As I wrote a few days ago, I’ve signed up for a contract with Stickk that penalizes me for not writing regularly. In other words, I’ve publicized my goal, but also have people following up to make sure I keep it. What would happen if I didn’t have that second part in place?

NYU psychologist Peter Gollwitzer ran an experiment on law students to see how announcing a goal publicly affected how well they accomplished them.

He asked them to rate a series of statements from “definitely yes” to “definitely no” about things like how hard they planned to study. Some of the students anonymously dropped the pronouncements in a box, but others were asked to personally hand it in to the person running the experiment. So, in effect, those who turned it in had simulated public announcing that they planned to be awesome students.

As a follow-up, the experimenters asked the students to work on 20 difficult law problems, but told them that they could quit at any time. The ones who had “announced” their goals consistently worked less hard and quit sooner than those who kept them private.

What did that mean? The researchers think talking about a goal publicly gives us the same psychic benefits as actually doing it. In other words, telling someone, “I’m going to start going to the gym!” makes you already feel like you’ve accomplished something and less likely to follow through.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only place where getting a friend involved in goal-setting gets counterintuitive.

Watching someone exert self-control makes you exhausted too.

Self-control is like a muscle. When you use it, it gets tired, and you’re temporarily more likely to give in. Go to the refrigerator and spend some time staring at a box of ice cream. Hopefully, you resisted the temptation to actually eat it. Good for you!

Ok, now go do your homework. Studies have shown that the second task becomes much more difficult. You’ve already exhausted your self-control muscle on the ice cream. Sure, self-control gets better over time—if you “work it out” frequently—but it still can weaken if used too frequently.

But what if you have a friend who just embarked on an epic diet? A Yale study shows that that can be just as exhausting. It turns out that empathizing with someone—listening to your friend gripe about that box of ice cream he just denied himself—works your self-control muscle too.

It’s one of the several drawbacks of empathy. As someone at Psychology Today put it, think about the last time you saw a comic bomb: the embarrassing silence as his jokes fell flat, the look on his face, the cringe-inducing meanness of hecklers, etc. Albeit to a lesser extent, you probably felt some of the pain that he did.

That’s what makes us able to relate to each other and share in each other’s emotions. But when those emotions that you share in involve self-control, you’ll likely start to experience some of the same drawbacks as your friend. Your friend says, “Work is making me so tired. I’m just going to go home and pig out,” and you start to feel tired even though you spent the entire day playing frisbee.

Get close, but not too close.

That kind of finding should make a lot of personal finance blogs nervous, especially the ones that emphasize the personal. Could just reading about debt reduction and frugality actually make you less frugal? Do you vicariously experience the satisfaction and exhaustion of their self-control?

Lucky for me, probably not. The same authors of the empathy study found that simply reading about other people’s self-control made their own self-control better than those who read something unrelated. Apparently, the act of reading doesn’t trigger empathy in the same way as talking and watching does.

I wonder how the results would change if they were reading the journal of a friend. When you can picture a friend going through the motions, as opposed to a stranger, it seems like you could trigger some of the same emotions as if you actually saw it happen.

Stories about bad comic routines can be funny to read. But a story about your friend, who is a comic, takes on a whole different feeling, right? The closeness to the messenger can make the act of reading more personal. That’s just me speculating. I haven’t seen a study on that one.

It’s tempting to end this post with a series of tips that go something like “Don’t talk to friends about your own goals or about their goals.” That would be ridiculous. Sharing goals, needs, worries, and joys is part of what makes us human and of what makes being human fun.

But like most things psychological, once you know what’s influencing you, it becomes easier to control the influence. Next time you talk to a friend about his diet or rough day at work, pay attention to the hunger or exhaustion that inspires in you.

And then, please, go hit up the gym.

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