Research Paper By Benjamin Hung
(Life Coach, HONG KONG)
Every year at New Year’s Eve, 40% of Americans review their year and decide on some New Year’s resolutions i.e. a declaration of their intentions for the coming year e.g. losing weight; eating healthier; sleeping better; saving more money and so on. But statistics show that within 30 days, 80% of these New Year’s resolutions will be discarded.
According to Statista, 53% of Americans surveyed in 2017 wanted to save money in the coming year closely followed by 43% who want to lose weight or get in shape. These are admirable goals but given that 80% of the New Years’s resolutions are discarded, is there any point in making these resolutions in the first place?
What is accountability?
At Newcastle University, a research project was undertaken to observe students who littered in a campus cafe. Posters were put up throughout the cafe. The posters displayed pictures of human eyes staring out at hungry students all around the cafe. The researchers discovered that the students were twice as likely to clean up when they were surrounded by these eye-posters!
This suggests that we modify our behavior (even on a subconscious level) if our brain suggests to us that we are being watched. Even though we know the eyes aren’t real and no one is watching, we still pay attention to them and modify our behavior accordingly.
Is a poster sufficient? Is a large photograph of a grandma in a teenager’s bedroom enough of a deterrent to prevent inappropriate high jinks behavior?
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “accountable” as being “subject to giving an account: answerable; capable of being accounted for: explainable; held responsible.”
Accountability requires more than a poster. It requires an individual (who is not yourself) whom you have to be accountable to. And it is better and more effective when it involves a proper relationship and a support system as opposed to law enforcement (e.g. you didn’t do your exercises, now you need to go to jail) or a yes man (e.g. yes, one push up counts as exercise – well done!)
Accountability through the ages
As human beings, we are wired for community and accountability. It is clear from the statistics and research papers undertook that when we are accountable to someone, our actions have a greater chance of succeeding than when we are not. For thousands of years, before research papers had been written on the subject, this has been discussed and written about.
The story of Odysseus and the Sirens:
Odysseus was traveling with his men when they came close to the Island of the Sirens (found between the Western Sea between Aeaea and the Rocks of Scylla). The Sirens lure sailors to destruction by the sweetness of their song. Odysseus was aware of his weakness and therefore he asked his sailors to keep him accountable. He told them to bind him with stronger ropes if he asked to be set free. As expected, Odysseus asked to be set free and therefore the men bound him with stronger ropes until they were out of the Sirens’ range. Thankfully disaster was averted.
The book of Hebrews in the Bible, Chapter 10, Verse 25:
“Let us not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching”
At the time the book was written, Christianity was in its fledgling state. The early church was considered a sect and under persecution from the Roman Empire. Under threat of torture and persecution, it was essential that the early followers of Jesus kept meeting and encouraging one another and reminding themselves of their ultimate goal: to stay faithful to their way whilst waiting for the Day of the Lord to come.
‘No Man is an Island’ by John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod is washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or thine own, were; any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
This famous poem expresses the theory that humans do not flourish when we are isolated and disconnected. No human is self-sufficient. We are all dependent on the community. If we do not have a community and act as an island, then we will not thrive.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935. It is the largest and oldest alcohol support group in the world. Individuals who attend AA groups are committed to abstinence from alcohol and to living sober lives. The meetings offer a multitude of methods to support ongoing recovery. As well as the support groups, a key tenant of AA is sponsorship.
In AA the process of sponsorship involves a more mature recovering alcoholic keeping a new AA member accountable in the journey of healing and sobriety. The sponsor shares his experience continuously and checks in with the new member regularly. The sponsor essentially acts as an accountability partner for the new member. As well as accountability, the sponsor offers support and guidance throughout the journey. Whilst it is possible to stay sober without a sponsor, having one along the way can make the process more successful.
There have been various studies that have shown that having an AA sponsor has its advantages. In particular, AA members with sponsors at three months were almost three times as likely to be sober from alcohol at six months as opposed to members who did not have a sponsor. AA members with sponsors at 3 months reported 21% more sober days (in a 90-day window) after six months and, when drinking did occur, they reported drinking two drinks less than AA members without a sponsor.
The benefits of accountability also extend to sport and personal fitness. Studies have shown that finding the right exercise partner can significantly increase your chance of fitness success. The right exercise partner can provide support, competition, and accountability. He or she can motivate you into running further and motivate you to keep going when you want to give up.
A study from Indiana University surveyed married couples who joined gyms together. The study concluded that couples who worked out separately as individuals had a 43% dropout rate over the year. However, couples who went together to the gym only had a 6.3% dropout rate.
In Michigan State University, another study was undertaken to investigate whether a virtual partner would influence participants’ motivation during aerobic exercise. Researchers recruited 58 college-age females to ride a stationary bike for as long as they could. They were then told that they had a “virtual” workout partner who was doing the same exercise in another gym. They were told their virtual partners had ridden the bike 40% longer than they had. When tested again and now being aware of their virtual partner’s performance, the participants had a 90% increase in performance.
In the third part of the study, the participants were told they were now on a team with their partner and we’re working together to achieve a team score, which was based on the score of the teammate who quit first. Having the feeling that they did not want to be the weakest link on the team motivated the participants to exercise for an average of two minutes longer. Over time, the difference in the participants’ performance continually increased, with the group participants exercising for up to 200% longer than those exercising as individuals.
Accountability is more than just punishment
The reality is that we all have underlying beliefs and issues which induce us to rationalize what we do and say, even when it doesn’t seem to make much sense. We give ourselves excuses not to go to the gym. We come up with valid reasons as to why we can miss that class. At times it can seem like we have an amazing ability to be in denial and to self destruct and thus prevent ourselves from reaching our true potential. With this in mind, accountability is essential – we need to be protected from ourselves. If not we won’t reach anywhere near our true potential in life.
Accountability cannot just be about punishment and having a deterring set of eyes to prevent you from slacking off. The danger with such an approach is that you could simply lie to your accountability partner. If your accountability partner acts like a policeman who will punish you, you will either hide your shortfalls or lie to him. By doing so, it is clear that this can negate the advantages of having an accountability partner.
A punishment only system does not work. Studies have shown that in the criminal justice arena, a get-tough approach to crimes that rely on punishment alone have not made communities safer. Increasing prison sentences do not deter criminal behavior. Longer sentences often lead to higher re-offending rates. At the end of the day, the threat of punishment, no matter how severe, will not deter anyone who believes they can get away with it.
On the other hand, there is growing support for the rehabilitation of prisoners. It follows that policies and programs that focus on rehabilitating offenders will have a greater chance of success in preventing crime and improving community safety. Rehabilitation focuses on more than just the behavior of the prisoner. It focuses on their mental wellbeing, psychological state, social functioning, and day to day interactions.
Transporting these thoughts to our context of accountability, it seems clear that accountability is more effective when it is more than just someone keeping tabs on you. For accountability to be truly effective, it has to be more than asking questions such as: did you play your piano today?; or did you go to bed on time as you said you would, etc.
It is too easy to lie. This type of accountability relies solely on external reinforcement: the chosen accountability partner represents law enforcement and when we do not meet the required standards, it requires ourselves to turn ourselves in. Yet when the reward for turning yourself in is punishment, that doesn’t make this type of accountability attractive.
Describing his struggles with accountability, author Michael Cusick wrote:
“During my sexual struggles, I was held accountable by friends and mentors who were among the most insightful and highly trained men around. But I didn’t have the ability or desire to let these men into my heart.
Accountability is not easy. On one hand, the accountability partner has to foster a safe and trusting environment so that the individual feels comfortable to share when he or she falls short. If you know that your accountability partner is going to come down hard on you and tear you down, then this will impact the motivation, to be honest. But if you know that the accountability partner will build you up despite your failures and seek to exhort and encourage, then this will encourage openness and honesty.
On the other hand, if an accountability partner is too lax and is simply “a yes man” then this is also a recipe for failure. If your accountability partner does not challenge you sufficiently, then the benefits of accountability are once again lost. There is limited incentive to achieve targets or meet goals if you know that your accountability partner will not say anything substantial or provide any challenge to you.
There are many cases where having a “yes man” instead of true accountability leads to disaster. In her paper for the Harvard Business Review, Norena Hertz recounts several examples of this. For example, President Lyndon Baines Johnson discouraged dissent. Researchers argue that this played a significant role in the decision to escalate American military action in the Vietnam War. At Lehman Brothers, if you voiced dissent, there was a real possibility that you were going to lose your job. This lack of true accountability meant that there weren’t sufficient checks on the decisions that ultimately lead to the financial crisis and the demise of the investment bank.
As the ICA Module on accountability surmises:
“Accountability is one of the most complex aspects of coaching. Reminding a client of a goal or commitment in a way that doesn’t judge or control is challenging to manage and takes practice….
Accountability needs to be carefully balanced with encouragement, enthusing, and acknowledging. It needs to come from an understanding of how challenging real change and achievement can be”
The research has shown that accountability is a very powerful tool in helping clients achieve their goals and targets. As coaches, we must draw our client’s attention to this, either by offering ourselves up as accountability partners or asking our clients to carefully consider who in their spheres can keep them accountable.
Cusick, M. J. (2012). Surfing for God: discovering the divine desire beneath sexual struggle. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Donne, J. (1624). No man is an island.
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Hertz, N. (2014, August 7). Every Leader Needs a Challenger in Chief. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2013/09/whos-your-challenger-in-chief.
Tonigan, J. S., & Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24(3), 397–403. DOI: 10.1037/a0019013
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