How Social Media Does (and Doesn’t) Motivate You

Why seeing friends attain fitness goals sometimes inspires, sometimes doesn't

Apr 29, 2019
As Featured In 
Information Systems Research

When you’re on social media a lot, it can seem like everyone is meeting their fitness goals. They’re running marathons, competing in triathlons, going on scenic hikes, doing yoga with goats. These messages are probably excellent motivation for your exercise goals. Right?

Yes and no, Maryland Smith researchers find in a recent study.

Yes, those of us who have more digital social connections do respond more productively when we see how much exercise our connections are doing. But, no, because those messages often lead us to set unrealistic exercise goals for ourselves and then we simply fail.

The research touches on the power of interventions to “nudge” people to change their behavior in ways that have important societal implications.

It’s already well understood that social norms can motivate us to change our behavior. But, Maryland Smith’s Ritu Agarwal and Guodong "Gordon" Gao, with Indiana University’s Che-Wei Liu, a Maryland Smith PhD graduate, wanted to find out how the effects manifest across individuals in a socially connected digital world.

Their research offers up new empirical evidence from a two-month randomized field experiment that included more than 7,000 people in an online physical activity community.

They found that social connectivity plays a big role in how we set exercise goals. People with higher levels of social connectivity were more susceptible to social norms messages that pertained to how many community members were setting goals. And those who have more followers than they actually followed were the most susceptible.

“Strikingly,” the researchers write, “we find that social norms also lead to a substantially lower rate of goal attainment as compared with the control message that simply highlights the benefits of setting a goal.”

The study, to be published in the journal Information Systems Research, may have important implications for the design of interventions based on social norms.

The findings are surprising. Previous research has found that social norm interventions – basically, telling people what lots of other people do – is effective in inducing behavioral change. For example, earlier research has found that it can motivate 44.5% of people to reuse a towel, compared to a standard environmental message, which inspires only 37.2%.

In the more recent study from Maryland Smith, the researchers sought to explore whether social norms exert differential influence across individuals in a digital social network. They examined whether high connectivity, reflected in the number of followers and followees of an individual, might lead to “an overly potent social norms effect and yield undesirable consequences.”

They conducted a randomized field experiment in collaboration with one of the largest online physical activity communities in Taiwan. In the experiment, they sent more than 7,000 users a message that encouraged them to set a self-determined monthly running distance goal, randomizing users to receive one of two message types. One group received a control message with standard language that refers to the benefits of setting goals; the other group received a treatment message that augments the control message with social norms by indicating the number of users in this community who set a goal in the pretreatment month. Then, in cooperation with an online running platform, they observed for two months.

They found that connectivity played an important role in moderating the effectiveness of social norms. For users who weren’t highly socially connected, the social norms message resulted in just a 1% increase in the goal-setting rate, as compared to the control group. However, for users who were very socially connected, there was a 7.7% increase in the goal setting rate.

The researchers grouped the subjects into different types: information-sharers (high followers, low followees), information-seekers (low followers, high followees), and friendshippers (roughly equal followers and followees). Information-sharers were the most susceptible to the social norms treatment, they found. The researchers had predicted as much, theorizing that people who care about impression management are the most vulnerable to social norm messages. They want to make a good impression on others.

The research also found that social norms led to a far lower rate of goal attainment, compared to the control group. When a user is not highly socially connected, the social norms and control messages produce similar effects on goal attainment rate (37.3% and 40.2%, respectively). For a highly socially connected user, the goal attainment rates are sharply different (32.1% for the social norms condition and 69.5% for the control).

The socially connected group tended to set goals “beyond their capabilities,” the team found.

“From a practice and policy perspective, our study has important implications for the effective and safe use of social norms in nudging people,” the researchers say.

Digital nudges as strategies to influence user behavior are increasingly popular today, especially in the form of push notifications on online platforms. Their effects are typically measured with a simple A-B test.

But these findings suggest a need “to go a step further,” the researchers write, “to open the black box and examine heterogeneous treatment effects on different individuals. Platforms should consider multiple indicators to evaluate the trade-offs among interventions in order to fully reap the benefits of push notifications.”

Read more: "Unraveling the 'Social' in Social Norms: The Conditioning Effect of User Connectivity" will be published in a forthcoming edition of Information Systems Research.

About the Author(s)

Guodong (Gordon) Gao is a professor in the Decision, Operations and Information Technologies Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. His research interests include IT's impact on healthcare and innovation, and the transparency in service quality. 


Ritu Agarwal

Ritu Agarwal is interim dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She is also the Robert H. Smith Dean’s Chair of Information Systems and founding director of the school’s Center for Health Information and Decision Systems (CHIDS). She has published more than 100 papers in top academic journals, testified before government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Health, and collaborated with Fortune 500 companies such as Cisco Systems, Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer. Since arriving at Maryland Smith in 1999, Agarwal has taught at every level and received all of the school’s major teaching awards. Prior to her appointment as interim dean, she served as Senior Associate Dean for Faculty & Research.

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