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The Couch Potato Effect: Can you satisfy a goal by watching others?

Posted May 24, 2011


            You sit on the couch and watch people cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon. You tune into “The Biggest Loser” and see contestants drop pounds. Your coworker lands a big job promotion.

            Does watching someone complete a goal motivate us to complete a similar goal?  How do the goals of others impact our own efforts?  

            Idaho State University assistant psychology professor, Kathleen McCulloch, Ph.D., explores these questions in an article titled “Vicarious goal satiation in the May issue, (volume 47, issue 3)  of  the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

            McCulloch collaborated on the study with Grainne Fitzsimons of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business; Sook Ning Chua of McGill University; and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The article suggests that observing others pursue goals can, in some circumstances, undermine the observer’s motivation. 

            How so? What McCulloch calls the “couch potato effect” may have something to do with it. “I got this idea because so many people sit on the couch and passively view sports.  Why don’t they get up and do something about it?” she wondered. 

            The researchers theorized that passive viewing—watching from the sofa or sidelines—may likely satiate the urge to complete a similar goal.  “It’s something that happens nonconsciously,” said McCulloch.    

            To test the hypothesis, McCulloch and her colleagues conducted experiments in which participants observed varying degrees of goal pursuit, such as the completion of an anagram task and a scenario that involved an employee’s quest to obtain a signature from a manager.

            “We find that watching others perform and complete a goal leads to
less striving on that same goal by the viewer. In other words, seeing
the other person successfully complete a task renders the viewer less
motivated,” said McCulloch.

            “Our findings have important implications for the workplace,” researcher Fitzsimons said.

            “One employee’s success could easily undermine the performance of others by leading to a false sense of progress, so managers should be careful with their public feedback. It is crucial that employees feel a sense of ownership over their own work only, and aren’t fooled into feeling complacent because they’re part of a successful team,” she continued.