27 September 2023

Under the eye: Why we work harder when we think someone’s watching

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Janina Steinmetz and Ayelet Fishbach * say people are more creative and think and work harder when they know they are being observed.

In the current pandemic, finding motivation for those working in self-isolation presents unique challenges.

Many people struggle more than ever to efficiently get their work done in their home offices and to focus on video conferences and email exchanges.

But it’s easy to overlook another key source of motivation, which is conspicuously absent for many workers in the current circumstances: the presence of other people.

Social psychologists have known for decades that people are motivated to work harder when others are watching.

When they are observed, people run faster, are more creative, and think harder about problems.

These effects occur for several reasons.

For one, people want to impress others through their performance, and thus try harder.

Anyone who has ever stayed in the office late when their boss was still around has experienced this phenomenon.

However, the presence of others has a further and more fundamental effect on people.

Not only does it affect what people do, it also impacts how they think about their actions.

When others are watching, people feel that what they do is magnified, which can then fuel their motivation.

This effect occurs because when others are watching, people include others’ perspective into their own perspective.

The dual perspective then magnifies their work, because investing time, energy, and effort into something that feels big and meaningful is much more motivating than investing in something that feels small.

The magnification of one’s work increases one’s motivation to work more and harder.

For example, we found in our research that the more spectators watched a badminton player during a tournament, the more the players felt that their efforts had helped their team.

In another study, when others were watching, people felt that they had worked harder on math problems than when they were alone.

More generally, the more people watch what we do, the larger and more meaningful our actions feel.

These research findings might explain why it is so difficult to summon the motivation to get work done in social isolation.

Our accomplishments, whether it is inbox zero or a project finished on time, feel less meaningful without the presence of others.

Because the good feeling of having accomplished something is less intense when we are alone, our motivation to work hard crumbles in self-isolation.

At first glance, it might seem that our research suggests that we need others to be physically present to find motivation.

This would suggest a bleak outlook for the next few months of some form of social distancing.

However, our research also shows that people magnify what they do not only when they are observed, but even when they merely feel observed.

In one study, even symbols of watching eyes to signal that their screen was recorded led people to think they worked harder.

A camera recording people was similarly as effective as an actual human observer.

These results point to an avenue for how we can use the motivating presence of others even in self-isolation.

We can invite other people’s observing eyes to look at our work and find strategies to bring the motivating presence of other people into our lives without violating social distancing rules.

Here are some examples for how this might work in practice:

  • Leave video meetings with your colleagues running during the day to watch each other do your individual work — almost like having a real colleague in the cubicle next to you.
  • Exchange emails for even brief video calls to make sure others can see and hear what you are doing.
  • Set up an online group with colleagues to exchange your progress on your projects and to keep each other accountable.
  • Use productivity apps that let you post your efforts.
  • Take pictures of your work and share them with colleagues, supervisors, or even your friends.
  • Send updates to colleagues and supervisors on your projects.
  • Make a growth list with colleagues of skills that you want to learn or improve on, and share your progress.
  • At the end of each day, write a “done” list and share it with colleagues, friends or family members. Don’t forget to include seemingly trivial tasks such as cleaning up your folders, writing a dreaded email, or checking in with someone you met at a conference.

While virtually everyone’s daily life is more difficult during the pandemic, our motivation to get our work done does not have to suffer.

Thanks to technology that connects us, we can experience the motivational boost of the presence of others even in self-isolation.

* Janina Steinmetz is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Cass Business School in London. Ayelet Fishbach is the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioural Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

This article first appeared at hbr.org

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