Humans are a social species, and we are strongly influenced by the examples other people set for us. Of course, there are different kinds of role models in the world. Some of them are positive. They serve as an example of the things we should be doing. A friend who exercises and has a healthy diet is a great model for us to follow. But we also have negative role models al around us—friends who eat poorly, exercise rarely, and may suffer health problems as a result of their choices.

Is it better for us to have positive role models or negative ones around us?

An interesting paper in the April 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Lucia Bosone, Frederic Martinez, and Nikos Kalampalikis suggests that the influence of a role model depends on the way you have characterized your goal.

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Research on motivation demonstrates that we have two distinct systems that influence our actions:

  • The approach system focuses us on the achievement of positive outcomes.
  • The avoidance system focuses us on preventing negative outcomes.

These researchers suggest that the influence of a role model is strongest when that role model fits the goal you are trying to achieve. Positive role-models, then, are most effective when you are approaching desirable states, while negative role-models are most effective when you are avoiding undesirable states.

In one study, participants read about the importance of maintaining a healthy diet.  Some participants were focused on the importance of a good diet for positive outcomes like increasing energy and maintaining a positive mood. Other participants were focused on the importance of a good diet for avoiding negative outcomes like handling stress and avoiding the effects of pollution.

Participants were also exposed to a description of a role model. Some read about a positive role model who eats a healthy diet. Others read about a negative role model who has an unhealthy diet.

After reading these messages, participants rated how likely they were to eat a healthy diet; whether it was important for them to eat a healthy diet; and whether they thought it would be easy for them to do so.

The message was most successful when the goal described fit the role model. That is, focusing on the positive effects of diet with a positive role model, or the negative effects of diet with a negative role model, made them more likely to eat a healthy diet (and to believe they could do it easily) than focusing on the positive effects of diet with a negative role model, or the negative effects of diet with a positive role model.

A second study extended this finding by looking at the methods people were most comfortable using to achieve a healthy diet. You can eat a healthier diet either by adding more fruits and vegetables (which is a positive action) or by avoiding salt and fat (which is a negative action). Participants who were exposed to a positive goal with a positive role model preferred to focus on eating healthier foods. Participants who were exposed to a negative goal with a negative role model preferred to focus on avoiding unhealthy foods.

Putting this all together, the best role model is one who fits the goal you are trying to achieve. When you are focused on achieving positive outcomes, positive role models are best, and you are most motivated to focus on actions you can take to achieve that goal. When you are focused on avoiding negative outcomes, negative role models are best, and you are most motivated to avoid bad behaviors.

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