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New Year, New You

How do your relationships influence your ability to keep your resolutions?

It’s the New Year, which means it’s that time again…New Year’s resolution time. Now, personally, I have never been much of a resolution maker, but this time of year many set the goal that this will be the year that they quit smoking, eat better, lose weight, spend more time with their families, spend more time without their electronic devices, etc., etc., etc. Some people will be successful in attaining these goals that they have set for themselves, but many will not.

For many years, psychologists have investigated goal pursuit and attainment in order to understand what makes some people successful at achieving the things they set their mind to while others fail. However, most of the existing work has focused on what individuals do or don’t do that impact their goals. What I want to focus on in this post is how our interpersonal relationships can help or hinder us in achieving the things we strive for. In the past decade or two, researchers have turned their attention to just this question and it turns out that our close relationships, whether romantic partners, friends, or parents, do profoundly impact how we pursue our goals (see Fitzsimons & Finkel, 2010 for a review).

In some ways, our relationships can help us be more successful in our goal pursuits than we might have been otherwise. For example, just thinking of the goals that our close others have for us— like our parents’ desire to see us be successful or our partner’s desire to see us be healthy— has been shown to help people try harder at, and be more successful in those pursuits (Fitzsimons & Bargh, 2003). Additionally, research has shown that goals can actually be caught from others; that they are contagious like the common cold. When watching another person trying to pursue a goal, individuals’ often find that the goal becomes activated for them (Aarts, Gollwitzer, & Hassin, 2004).

However, interpersonal goal pursuit is tricky, and there are ways that our interpersonal relationships can actually get in the way of us chasing our goals and keeping our New Year’s resolutions. Recent research has shown that, although we can experience the goal contagion described above, if we watch someone else achieve or complete a goal, our own goal pursuit can suffer. Specifically, we can experience something called vicarious goal satiation, which occurs when watching someone else achieve a goal makes us non-consciously feel that we have achieved the same goal. When this happens we are less likely to strive to actually achieve the goal ourselves (McCulloch, Fitzsimons, Chua, & Albarracin, 2010).

Along similar lines, even though thinking of someone who has goals for us can help us chase those goals, the quality of the relationship that we’re thinking of matters. Chartrand and colleagues (2007) found that, if individuals felt that their romantic partner was controlling of them, that getting the person to think of that relationship was actually detrimental to the individual’s goal pursuit.

There are additional ways that the relationships in our lives can influence how well we are able to achieve our goals like keeping our New Year’s resolutions (see Fitzsimons & Finkel, 2010 for a review), but hopefully the research I detailed above gives you a sense of how complicated the relationship between our relationships and successful goal pursuit can be. It certainly gives me pause though, when considering the goals I am currently pursuing, to think about how my relationships may be making me more likely to cross the proverbial finish line versus fall short.

Aarts, H., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Hassin, R. R. (2004). Goal contagion: perceiving is for pursuing. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87(1), 23.

Chartrand, T. L., Dalton, A. N., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2007). Nonconscious relationship reactance: When significant others prime opposing goals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(5), 719-726.

Fitzsimons, G. M., & Bargh, J. A. (2003). Thinking of you: nonconscious pursuit of interpersonal goals associated with relationship partners. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(1), 148.

Fitzsimons, G. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2010). Interpersonal influences on self-regulation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(2), 101-105.

McCulloch, K. C., Fitzsimons, G. M., Chua, S. N., & Albarracín, D. (2011). Vicarious goal satiation. Journal of experimental social psychology, 47(3), 685-688.