If you think that a loving partner helps keep you on track when it comes to achieving goals, you could be wrong.
A new study has suggested that thinking about the support a significant other offers in pursuing goals can undermine the motivation to work toward those goals-and can increase procrastination before getting down to work.
The study's authors, psychological scientists Grainne M. Fitzsimons of Duke University and Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern University, call this phenomenon 'self-regulatory outsourcing'-the unconscious reliance on someone else to move your goals forward, coupled by a relaxation of your own effort. It happens with friends and family, too.
"If you look just at one goal" in isolation-as the study does-"there can be a negative effect. But relying on another person also lets you spread your energy across many goals, which can be effective if your partner is helpful," said Fitzsimons.
The authors conducted three online experiments with participants recruited from a data-collection service. In the first, of 52 women, some were asked to focus on a way their partners helped them reach health and fitness goals; the control group instead entertained thoughts of their partners helping them with career goals.
When asked how diligently they intended to work toward getting fitter and healthier in the coming week, the first group planned to put in less effort than the second.
Facing an academic goal, people also unconsciously outsourced their exertion to helpful partners. In the second experiment, 74 male and female students were given a means of procrastination-an engaging puzzle-before completing an academic achievement task that would help them improve their performance at university.
Those who had mused about how their partner helps them with academic achievement procrastinated longer, leaving themselves less time to work productively on the academic task, than did control group participants.
But recognizing dependency also inspired devotion-and commitment.
"In our study, women reported that their partners were very useful for their ongoing goals, giving examples like 'I'd never get to the gym if my husband didn't watch the children,' or 'I couldn't stick to my diet without his support,'" said Fitzsimons.
Among 90 female participants, those who outsourced more to their significant other were also more likely to say they were committed to making sure their relationship would persist over time, suggesting that outsourcing can lead to positive relationship outcomes.
The study has been published in the journal Psychological Science.