Motivation and self-control in the presence of observers
People frequently pursue their goals in the presence of observers. For example, when shopping, exercising, or eating, people are often observed by strangers who happen to be around. Whereas research so far has demonstrated that being observed itself affects overt behavior (e.g., increasing socially desirable behavior), my co-authors and I study whether the presence of observers also influences people's private evaluations of their own behavior, and furthermore look at how differences between observers affect behavior.
In a first set of studies, we show that being observed (vs. being alone) leads people to perceive their actions as magnified. For example, observed participants falsely believed that they ate larger food portions and solved a larger number of math problems, compared to participants who were alone. In a second set of studies, we show that the identity of the observer matters for the effects of being observed on self-control. Specifically, the presence of outgroup (vs. ingroup) observers leads people to make healthier food choices because people believe they can thereby counter the negative judgment that they anticipate from outgroup members. In a third set of studies, we show that observers can evoke guilt and thereby prevent indulgent choices when these choices are not accessible to observers, for example due to financial or dietary restrictions.
Taken together, the presence of observers affects motivation and self-control by influencing perceptions of actions, which is important for subsequent self-control. Furthermore, characteristics of observers (i.e., group membership, access to desired products) affects motivationally relevant choices by leading people to judge their choices from the observer's viewpoint.