INDIVIDUALS ARE REGULARLY EXPOSED TO PEOPLE who perform at high levels. Named buildings, portraits of highly respected leaders on walls, and tributes singling out exemplary performance are all part of the cultural landscape. Employers and schools recognize high performance with employee and student of the year awards. Many believe such recognition not only acknowledges the individual but also motivates others to strive toward greater achievement. But how true is this widely accepted view? Does exposure to exceptional performance actually spur others on to higher performance levels?

A recent study measuring individuals’ responses to exemplary behavior, conducted by Todd Rogers, associate professor of public policy at HKS, and Avi Feller, assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, surprisingly found the opposite to hold true in certain instances. Contrary to accepted belief, practices that single out exceptional behavior can reduce motivation, resulting in what the authors describe as “exemplar discouragement.” These findings, the authors write in “Discouraged by Peer Excellence: Exposure to Exemplary Peer Performance Causes Quitting,” which is in press at Psychological Science, could have an important impact on future educational practices and interventions.

Until now, the authors say, research has focused primarily on how individuals respond to behavior they believe they can replicate. When people are exposed to what the authors describe as “attainable social comparisons,” they are inspired to emulate the behavior. People see their peers vote or take steps to save energy and are motivated to do the same. Perspectives change, the study found, when individuals compare their behavior to peer behavior they perceive as unattainable. To reach this conclusion, the researchers looked at a Massive Open Online Course (“MOOC”) that included a peer assessment element to its grading scheme. Course participants are asked to write an essay and then to grade a random sample of their peers’ essays.

Those randomly assigned to evaluate exemplary peer essays were dramatically more likely to quit the course than those assigned to read more typical essays. In a follow-up experiment that simulated the MOOC setting, researchers discovered that those participants assessing the essays of their exemplary peers (mistakenly) inferred that the essays they reviewed represented the norm. These participants expressed that the task was no longer important to them, and they too were more likely to quit than those exposed to peer essays of more typical quality. The authors concluded: “Exemplar discouragement is powerful: real students who assessed exemplary peers’ essays are substantially less likely to earn course credit than those who assessed average peers’ essays.”  

These findings, the authors conclude, are important for understanding how leaders recognize and motivate individuals. Are current practices achieving the intended result? Can managers’ off-handed remarks about the exemplary behavior of specific employees infer unattainable performance that produces dis-engagement by others? When consumer energy consumption is compared among neighbors, usage goes down, but “future research should explore if such interventions can be made more effective by avoiding comparisons with exemplars.” Their findings, say the authors, could also have important implications for educational settings as well, as peer assessment becomes a greater part of both online and offline education. “The current research suggests that educators using peer-assessment should ensure that exemplary work is not interpreted as typical.”

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