By: Yulia Petrina (Bugle Team)

“Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are”. Who hasn’t heard that one, right? And it’s probably true, as you don’t really need experimental psychology to prove your friends influence you, and vice versa (but if you do need convincing, Wallace and Tice’s (2012) review can help).

What is more interesting – and less obvious – is that, apparently, you can also say, “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you what your goals are”. Research shows that we often pursue goals that people who matter have for us, and just being primed with these people’s names activates these goals (Shah, 2003b).

It doesn’t have to be friends, of course. Studies show that anyone who is important to you can influence your goals – your parents, your partner, and even your department director. Shah (2003b), for example, asked his participants to state a goal their mother or friend had for them. He then primed the subjects with the name of either their mother or their friend, and measured how committed to the stated goals the participants became, compared to a control group not primed with a name. So it turns out that just being reminded what a significant other wants of you (or for you) actually increases your motivation to get it.

Unsurprisingly, it looks like closeness predicts how likely you are to adopt a goal associated with someone (Gabriel, Carvallo, Dean, Tippin & Renaud, 2005; Shah, 2003b), and so does similarity to this person (Rusbult, Kumashiro, Kubacka, & Finkel, 2009). How much another person who is important to you values a certain goal also affects how likely you are to pursue this goal (Shah, 2003a).

This raises some interesting questions. For example, how do we associate particular goals with particular people? And, more importantly, how do we even know they want us to achieve these goals (unless they tell us, but that’s not what we are talking about here)?

This is not a trivial question and is similar to asking how we know what others think of us, in general. The vast body of literature on metaperceptions (thinking about others’ thoughts) addresses this topic. The findings regarding the content and accuracy of our metaperceptions, though extensive, provide mixed evidence. Some research suggests people do indeed know how others perceive them, and realize a discrepancy between how others see them and how they see themselves (e.g., Carlson, Vazire, & Furr, 2011). Inversely, Kenny & DePaulo (1993) suggest that people rely solely on their self-perceptions and are prevented by various biases from knowing how they appear to others.

In any case, internalizing significant others’ perceived views and appraisals of us appears to happen automatically and influences our self-perception. In a slightly mean experiment, Baldwin, Carrell and Lopez (1990) primed practicing Catholic undergrad students with pictures of a frowning Pope and then asked them to assess their own research ideas. As you can probably guess by now, they judged themselves more harshly than those who were shown a picture of a frowning stranger (and also those who were not practicing Catholics and presumably cared less).

Because it is still not clear whether we know how others actually see us, we cannot say for sure whether our perception of the goals we think they have for us is accurate. Where, then, do these goals come from? Why do we start wanting to do what those close to or important to us want us to do? Here we step into largely uncharted territory, because while researchers have addressed the question why we think others see us in a particular way, the knowledge about adopting others’ goals is very limited.

Metaperception and reflected appraisal theories offer some explanations about adopting others’ goals. For example, the Michelangelo effect causes us to behave in ways others expect us to – if you know somebody sees you as brave, you are more likely to behave that way around them (Rusbult et al., 2009). You might do this to avoid disappointing them, because you value your relationship (Kwang & Swann, 2010), or you might really want to believe you are how they see you, to appear consistent or because they have a better opinion of you than yourself (Wallace & Tice, 2012).

Alternatively, as it appears that just being reminded of a particular person spontaneously increases your motivation to pursue a congruent goal, another explanation is that reminding people of their significant others just makes the goals associated with them more salient and drives people to pursue those goals more intensively (Shah, 2003a).

Finally, pursuing others’ goals might be caused by group mentality. Some researchers suggest that accepting others’ goals is a form of social mimicry (Aarts, Gollwitzer, & Hassin, 2004). This probably makes sense, seeing as humans have always lived in groups. According to this logic, if somebody else whom you value wants something, it would probably be desirable to you as well, wouldn’t it?

However, people don’t mimic others blindly. Social norms influence their decision to pursue the goal, because people only adopt goals that can be pursued in a socially acceptable manner (Aarts et al., 2004). What is more, it seems that we instinctively try to preserve our autonomy. Research shows that we subconsciously reject the goals associated with the significant others who are too controlling. (Chartrand, Dalton, & Fitzsimons, 2007).

Hopefully, those close to us want the best for us. So if you want to boost your motivation to study for an important exam, go ahead and imagine how much your parents want you to succeed. That said, do keep in mind that it’s your life, and even if your mum has always wanted you to become a lawyer, that doesn’t have to be your goal. After all, you can’t please everyone, can you?


Aarts, H., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Hassin, R. R. (2004). Goal contagion: perceiving is for pursuing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(1), 23–37.

Baldwin, M. W., Carrell, S. E., & Lopez, D. F. (1990). Priming relationship schemas: My advisor and the Pope are watching me from the back of my mind. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology26(5), 435-454.

Carlson, E. N., Vazire, S., & Furr, R. M. (2011). Meta-insight: do people really know how others see them? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4), 831–46.

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.

Gabriel, S., Carvallo, M., Dean, K. K., Tippin, B., & Renaud, J. (2005). How I See Me Depends on How I See We : Society, 31(11).

Kenny, D. A, & DePaulo, B. M. (1993). Do people know how others view them? An empirical and theoretical account. Psychological Bulletin, 114(1), 145–161.

Kwang, T., & Swann, W. B. (2010). Do people embrace praise even when they feel unworthy? A review of critical tests of self-enhancement versus self-verification. Personality and Social Psychology Review : An Official Journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, 14(3), 263–280.

Rusbult, C. E., Kumashiro, M., Kubacka, K. E., & Finkel, E. J. (2009). “The part of me that you bring out”: ideal similarity and the Michelangelo phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(1), 61–82.

Shah, J. (2003a). Automatic for the people: how representations of significant others implicitly affect goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 661–681.

Shah, J. (2003b). The motivational looking glass: how significant others implicitly affect goal appraisals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 424–39.

Wallace, H., & Tice, D. (2012). Reflected appraisal through a 21st-century looking glass. Handbook of Self and Identity, 124–140. Retrieved from\n


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