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We Should Hang Out Sometime (If You Help Me Achieve My Goals)

Have you ever noticed that you prefer to spend time with certain people when you’re trying to achieve a goal? For instance, when you’re striving to be physically fit, are you more likely to seek out your friend who enjoys going to the gym (as opposed to your friend who enjoys eating cheese puffs and watching TV)? Close others have a unique capacity to help (or hinder) us as we work to achieve our goals (check out a related post here). Researchers call people who help us pursue our goals instrumental others and people who don’t really affect our pursuit of goals or people who impede our pursuit of goals non-instrumental others. Whether or not we feel someone is instrumental in achieving a goal tends to influence our behavior toward that person.

One series of studies found that when a particular goal was active (for their participants, academic achievement), instrumental (vs. non-instrumental) others came to mind more readily. People also desired to approach instrumental others, felt closer to them, and rated their relationships with them as more important. Not only that, but people were quicker to avoid and withdraw from non-instrumental others associated with the academic achievement goal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when people approached instrumental others, they were more likely to effectively attain the related goal (in this particular research, a higher grade on a midterm test).1 Thus, we are motivated to draw close to instrumental others who can promote successful goal achievement and to shy away from non-instrumental others who can get in the way.

This seems to apply not just to existing close others but also to potential close others. For example, when forming friendships, we typically prefer potential friends who may help us achieve goals (i.e., instrumental friends) compared to potential friends who may not (i.e., non-instrumental friends), over and above how likeable we find the person or how similar to him/her we perceive ourselves to be. Even just wanting to spend time with someone who could be instrumental in helping us achieve a particular goal makes us feel like we’re moving closer toward accomplishing said goal.2 To put this into perspective, imagine that Kelly desires to be more artistic. She is more likely to approach Chelsea and become friends with her if Chelsea attends painting or sculpting classes. On top of that, since Kelly is choosing to spend time with someone who could assist her in pursuing her goal, she may feel like she’s on her way to becoming a more artsy person already.

On a closing note, one thing to keep in mind is that different close others will be instrumental for different goals (e.g., Jenny is instrumental for career goals, but Mandy is instrumental for fitness goals), so you’ll likely draw close to instrumental others associated with whatever goal you’re currently pursuing. So perhaps keep an eye on who you text (or don’t text) the next time you want a gym or study buddy, or who you feel like working with on the next collaboration at your job. Chances are if you’re seeking certain people out, they’re likely instrumental and quite important for helping you achieve your goals.

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1Fitzsimons, G. M., & Shah, J. Y. (2008). How goal instrumentality shapes relationship evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 319-337.

2Slotter, E. B., & Gardner, W. L. (2011). Can you help me become the “me” I want to be? The role of goal pursuit in friendship formation. Self and Identity, 10, 231-247.

Sarah Stanton, M.Sc. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Sarah is interested in how different types of people think, feel, and behave in relationships, the positive and negative relationship outcomes associated with low self-regulatory ability, and how relationship experiences influence goal pursuit, bodily stress responses, and mental and physical health outcomes. 

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Reader Comments (1)

This makes sense on so many levels and it help put into perspective why I, and probably most others, choose to spend time with different friends at different times. I wonder how that works if someone has multiple goals in mind at once, say work and exercise, though?

October 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKen
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