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See Inside July / August 2011

The Partner Paradox: Why Buddying Up to Achieve Goals May Backfire




Anthony Nagelmann Getty Images

MY WIFE AND I go to spinning class a couple of mornings a week. It is something we like to do together, and I feel that I benefit from having a regular workout partner. Some days I am just lazy or I do not want to venture out in the predawn cold, but having a supportive partner motivates me. She bolsters my self-discipline when it flags.

Or does she? Is it possible that having a supportive partner might create the opposite and paradoxical effect, actually undermining effort and commitment to health and fitness goals over the long haul? Perhaps we conserve our limited supply of self-control, “outsourcing” our effort when we know that a close friend or partner is in the wings, helping us achieve a goal.

Two psychological scientists have been exploring this novel idea in the laboratory. Gráinne M. Fitzsimons of Duke University and Eli J. Finkel of Northwest­ern University suspected that moral support might have a flip side: namely, emotional dependence. If we know someone has our back, perhaps we unconsciously rely on that support to encourage us to reach our goals—and thus slack off.

Honey, Help Me Exercise
Fitzsimons and Finkel recruited a group of women in their 30s, all of whom were in a romantic relationship, for an online experiment. The researchers gave half of them a tricky typing exercise intended to deplete them mentally, and the other half got an easy typing task. Then the scientists asked some of the women to think of an example where their partner had helped them achieve a current long-term health and fitness goal—such as picking up the slack at home or being a workout partner. (The researchers used women because past studies show most women have health and fitness goals that they care about—Fitzsimons and Finkel wanted to be sure the people in their study were thinking about goals that actually mattered to them.) The other group of women also thought about their partners’ support but not specifically in the area of health and fitness; these women served as controls. Then, finally, the scientists asked all the volunteers a series of questions about their commitment to health and fitness and how much time and effort they planned to spend on such objectives the following week.

The idea was to see if thinking of a partner’s support depleted personal effort and commitment—and that is just what the scientists found. Those who were aware of a partner’s helping hand planned to commit less time and effort to their health and fitness. What is more, this effect was strongest among those who had been mentally depleted, suggesting that the women were outsourcing the work when they had less self-discipline in reserve to draw on.

I’ll Do It Later
The scientists wanted to double-check these findings, and they did so in an interesting way. They recruited both male and female college students and asked some of them to think about how their romantic partners helped them achieve their academic goals. Other students thought about how their partners contributed to their recreational efforts, such as getting better at a sport, and still other students simply thought about something they liked about their partner.

Then the researchers gave the students the choice to either work on a tough academic exercise that they were told was designed to improve future test-taking skills or to procrastinate on an entertaining—but unproductive—puzzle. The results were consistent with the first experiment: the students who were aware that they had a reliable partner waiting in the wings procrastinated much more than  did the students who had focused on their partner’s likability. Knowing they had support seemed to make students less concerned about depleting their mental energy on mere entertainment.

A Combined Effort
These experiments make it sound as if having a wingman (or -woman) is a disadvantage. But not so fast. Fitzsimons and Finkel ran one more online experiment with a group of women in relationships, but in this one they also measured the volunteers’ level of commitment to their partner. As reported in the online version of the journal Psychological Science, the researchers found that the women who outsourced their health and fitness efforts to a significant other were more committed to that partner. In other words, relying on a partner for help with meeting a goal might diminish the personal effort we devote to that target—but doing so benefits the relationship overall.

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