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People, Using People

Do we use friends and family to achieve our goals?

Yesterday's The Headcase looked at the relationship between Web use and loneliness. Some of us might prefer to be lonely if we knew the alternative was being exploited by those close to us. Yet that's kind of what we regularly do, according to research published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (abstract only).

The authors of the study report that people draw closer to those who can help them complete "a goal that has not been progressing well"—only to pull away when that goal is achieved. But we don't stop there. One reason we let go is so we can shift attention to other people who can help us with new goals.

The paper draws its conclusions from five separate experiments. The principal study found that after participants progressed at an academic goal, they pulled apart from the people who had aided their accomplishments. Likewise, when they floundered at the goal, they drew closer to those who helped them through the task.

The findings do come with qualifications: The results of three trials suggested that sometimes we stay close to those who aid our goals despite progress—particularly if we're obsessively and narrowly committed to one specific goal at the expense of all others.

Still, I found it interesting that the authors took an optimistic view of their findings, calling progress the "functional cue" that allows us to reprioritize our goals. In short, growing closer to certain people at certain times simply makes us more successful:

Importantly, we suggest that responding to progress in this fashion is functional, in that it serves to maximize overall self-regulatory success. In particular, perceived progress allows people to reprioritize their goals—decreasing the priority of the progressed goal and increasing the priority of less progressed goals.*

The Headcase can't help but take a slightly more pessimistic outlook. The type of behavior found in the study reminded me of an episode of Seinfeld (all right, what doesn't) in which Elaine encourages her boyfriend to become a doctor, only to get tossed when he finally does:

Elaine: What? you're breaking up with me? But I sacrificed and supported you while you struggled. What about my dream of dating a doctor?

Ben: I'm sorry, Elaine. I always knew that after I became a doctor, I would dump whoever I was with and find someone better. That's the dream of becoming a doctor.

Damn funny on a sitcom. In the real world, not so much. Perhaps the true moral here is to be nicer to your slacker friends who don't seem to have any goals at all: They might be the ones who really like you.

*Quote taken from an unofficial copy of the report; wording might appear differently in the printed journal.

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