What makes a good role model? It’s common to think about role models for children, but even as adults, we can find ourselves inspired and motivate by other people’s success…and sometimes their failure.
It wasn’t so long ago that the world’s top athletes competed on a global stage, giving their all to the Olympic games. Did you find their display of peak performance inspiring? Did it fill you with the energy to go after your goals? The commercials that aired during the Olympics certainly seemed to reinforce this message.
Or did these Olympians knock you down? Did their amazing talent, skill, and dedication at such young ages make you think, “What am I doing with my life?” It’s possible that the very same role model who can inspire so many people can also deflate another set of people.
Social psychological research has turned its attention to questions like this, asking not only what makes good role models but also when are role models especially inspiring?
When Their Success Seems Attainable
One factor that can make a difference is whether the role model’s success seems attainable. Sure, they might have shown an amazing accomplishment, but if you don’t believe that you could ever reach the same goal yourself, that person might not be too inspiring.
Consider the 20-year-old Olympian who’s won a gold medal for her skill. If you’re in your 50s, that athlete may not be too inspiring because her accomplishment doesn’t seem attainable for you. But if you’re a teenage girl, that woman’s accomplishments may represent something you might accomplish if you set your mind to it.
One way researchers have tested whether this is the case or not was to look at the influence of an academic role model: someone who has achieved great intellectual accomplishments.
In one study, Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda looked at two types of people: (1) people who think that their intelligence can grow and develop and (2) people who think that intelligence is something their born with and can’t change. (For other research that’s looked at this difference, check out this article on the psychology of success).
They gave a bunch of students newspaper articles about a truly outstanding student. They made sure it was someone the participants could relate to, so the superstar student was always the same gender and academic major as the person reading the article. The question was: would reading about a superstar student inspire and motivate people?
The answer depended on the students’ own beliefs about mental ability. On the one hand, a high-achieving role model inspired students who understood that they could become smarter. When the results felt attainable, the role model was an inspiration.
On the other hand, the same role model had no effect on students who thought they could never achieve more than they had at the moment. If anything, they started to view themselves more negatively after reading about an all-star who had reached a level they felt they never could.
It Depends on Your Bigger Concern
Even though high achievers can be such an inspiration, sometimes we’re motivated by negative role models. The people who have made the mistakes and suffered the consequences can also be an inspiring example to us, motivating us to work harder.
But when are negative role models more motivating? It depends on what you care about.
Before on this blog, I’ve talked about the difference between being “promotion focused” and “prevention focused.” I’ll plagiarize myself to describe the difference…
Promotion focused people are looking at their hopes and dreams, looking for opportunities to grow. Prevention focused people are instead concerned with safety and security, making sure nothing poses too much of a threat. The thing is, we can all be “promotion focused” sometimes and “prevention focused” other times. But what we’re focused on can affect which role models we find most inspiring.
One study put students into either of those two mindsets. Researchers asked one group of students to think about an academic goal that they wanted to reach (promotion). They asked another group of students to think about something in school that they wanted to avoid (prevention).
Then they showed these students one of two role models. The positive role model was someone who had won a huge scholarship and had a big time job offer. The negative role model was someone who couldn’t find a good job and was feeling depressed because of his academic troubles.
Finally, they asked everyone how motivated they were to do well in school. Did they plan to study, keep up with their readings, and procrastinate less?
The results showed that a promotion focus made the positive role model more motivating than the negative one. When you’re focused on achieving greatness, you’re more inspired by people who have worked hard and made it to the top.
On the other hand, a prevention focus made the negative role model more motivating than the positive one. When you’re focused on avoiding failure, it’s the people who have made mistakes that motivate you the most. You care less about the people who’ve done things right. Instead, the bad examples are the ones that jump start your motivation.
Good Role Models Are Hard to Come By
These two simple studies paint a revealing picture about the reality of role models. Yes, we can be inspired and motivated by other people in the world, but it’s not that simple. The very same person might be an inspiration to some and not to others. And the very same person might be an inspiration to you sometimes and not other times.
Nevertheless, the inspiration that we can get from other people is undeniable. No doubt there are people you’ve known or seen who have lit your fire and pushed you to be your greatest self. Who’s your role model? How do they inspire you?