Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

It Is Motivating to Belong to a Group

Being a part of a group—any group—is motivating.

There are lots of benefits to being a member of a community. People feel more secure when they know that they have others around them who share their goals and care about their progress. That is one reason why it can be so stressful to move or to travel. Suddenly, you are cut off from your regular group.

But, how much of a connection do you need with others in order to get some benefit from being a member of a group? This question was explored in a paper by Gregory Walton, Geoffrey Cohen, David Cwir, and Steven Spencer in the March, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their research suggests that you don't need much connection before you start to see some benefit. 

In one study, for example, college student participants read an article that was supposed to have been written by a more advanced student who had a positive experience in math. The biography of the author of this article included their birthday. For some participants, the biography was set up so that the author of the article and the participant had the same birthday. For others, the participant and the author had birthdays several months apart. 

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 After reading this article, participants were given a geometry problem that is impossible to solve (involving coloring a map with a fixed number of colors). Participants who shared a birthday with the author of the article worked longer on the impossible problem than participants who did not share a birthday. In addition, the participants who shared a birthday with the author of the article had more positive thoughts about math and rated the math department at their university as a friendlier and warmer place. 

Another study created an arbitrary relationship between people. People were given a sticker to wear at the start of the study. Later, they were told that the people with that color sticker were either part of the "numbers" group or part of the "puzzles" group. After being placed in these groups, people were given the impossible math problem used before.  People who were part of the "numbers" group worked on the problem longer than those who were part of the "puzzles" group. Interestingly, this effect only happened for those people who were highly interested in math. People who were not interested in math were not affected by being put in the "numbers" group. 

Putting these studies together, this work shows that even a simple relationship between people based on arbitrary reasons like sharing a birthday or being randomly assigned to a group) is enough to increase feelings of warmth and motivation. 

Ultimately, people seem wired to adopt the goals of the people around with, particularly when they feel close to those others. Of course, that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what the people around us are doing. For that reason, we have to be careful to surround ourselves with other people who are engaging in the behaviors that we would like to see in ourselves.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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