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Gamification Works a Lot Like Goal-Setting

2015 September 30
by Richard N. Landers

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the most common forms of gamification is the use of leaderboards. Despite their bad press, leaderboards are commonly used to direct people to achieve specific target goals while motivating them via competition. You see that leaderboard, and you need to score highly on it! Leaderboards are sometimes derided as being poor examples of gamification, yet research seems to support them as effective tools, at least in some circumstances.

In organizational science, we already have a technique to give people goals: goal-setting! Goal-setting, without leaderboards, is quite effective at directing employee behavior. If give an employee a specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound (SMART) goal, that employee is more likely to achieve that goal than if you let them just try their best.

That leads to a bit of a problem if you’re planning a motivational intervention for your employees. Which would you expect to be more effective: a leaderboard or goal-setting theory?

In a recent study by Landers, Bauer and Callan[1], this was tested by experimentally assigning people to one of five brainstorming conditions. In four, participants experienced classic goal-setting stimuli – do-your-best, easy, difficult, and (nearly) impossible goals. In the fifth, they experienced a leaderboard with all of those goals but represented in point form – so for example, the top score on the leaderboard corresponded to the “impossible” goal.

Importantly, goal-setting theory tells people to try to reach a goal. So in the difficult goal-setting condition, participants were instructed to try for the difficult goal. In the leaderboard condition, they were not instructed at all – there was simply a leaderboard present.

So how did participants do? Simply presenting the leaderboard resulted in similar achievement levels to those of the difficult and impossible goals.

Figure demonstrating group differences between experimental conditions.

Figure 1 from Landers, Bauer & Callan (2015)

Thus, simply presenting a leaderboard motivated participants to strive for the top of the leaderboard, at the same level as difficult and impossible goal-setting. This demonstrates a great deal of value for gamification – instead of simply commanding your employees with specific goals, presenting those goals on a leaderboard could have a similar effect.

Importantly, goal commitment was important for the leaderboard just as it is for goal-setting. In goal-setting, you need to believe in your goal. You need to think that it’s a worthwhile goal to pursue. Leaderboards appear to work the same way – you need to believe those scores are worth pursuing. However, from the research presented it here, it appears that this commitment is even more important for leaderboards. People who did not believe in the leaderboard performed worse than those in the impossible goal-setting condition, whereas people who did believe in the leaderboard performed better than the impossible goal-setting condition.

Thus, for those highly committed to the leaderboard, games were more motivating than all types of goal-setting (including those highly committed to the impossible goal).

Overall, this provides compelling support for the use of leaderboards as an alternative presentation technique for goal-setting. Additional research is needed to determine if it can be even more effective – and precisely what gamification design will enable it.

  1. Landers, R. N., Bauer, K. N., & Callan, R. C. (2015). Gamification of task performance with leaderboards: A goal setting experiment Computers in Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.08.008 []

Grad School: Pursuing an I/O PhD with an Existing Master’s

2015 August 26
by Richard N. Landers

Grad School Series: Applying to Graduate School in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Starting Sophomore Year: Should I get a Ph.D. or Master’s? | How to Get Research Experience
Starting Junior Year: Preparing for the GRE | Getting Recommendations
Starting Senior Year: Where to Apply | Traditional vs. Online Degrees | Personal Statements
Alternative Path: Managing a Career Change to I/O | Pursuing a PhD Post-Master’s
Interviews/Visits: Preparing for Interviews | Going to Interviews
In Graduate School: What to Expect First Year
Rankings/Listings: PhD Program Rankings | Online Programs Listing

Those on an alternative path to an I/O degree, and for those who didn’t quite qualify for a Ph.D. program during their first round of applications might find themselves considering pursuing a Ph.D. in I/O Psychology with a Master’s degree already in hand.  If you’re thinking about this, here are several important things to consider:

  1. It is universally preferable to go straight into a Ph.D. program post-Bachelor’s if possible.  The Ph.D. application process is really designed with recent college graduates in mind. You need strong reference letters from professors familiar with your work, which are much easier to get if you are still in college with those professors.  You need to complete the GRE, which is much easier if you’ve been regularly taking tests for the last few years. You also need research experience, which is much easier to do while you’re still taking classes than as a past-time lab volunteer with a full-time job. Finally, don’t underestimate the pull of your own life priorities. The further you get from college, the more you’ll want to spend more time with your family, and taking time away from them will be less and less attractive.  So just to be clear, if you’re in college now and know you want a Ph.D., just do it. Don’t wait, because it only gets harder. This page is for people who don’t have that choice anymore.
  2. If you already have a Master’s degree in something other than I/O Psychology, you will need to complete a new I/O Psychology Master’s degree in the course of a Ph.D. program. The Master’s coursework in a Ph.D. program is considered the foundational knowledge of a Ph.D. student. As a result of this, Master’s-level courses are usually (but not always) primarily delivered via lecture.  Once you’re past your Master’s coursework, the format generally shifts to that of seminars, where you sit around a table with faculty and other Ph.D. students discussing academic journal articles. If you don’t have the Master’s-level coursework in I/O, you will be 100% lost in seminar. There’s no way around it.
  3. If you already have a Master’s in I/O Psychology, you may need to complete a second I/O Master’s degree. Not all Master’s degrees are made equal. The only way an I/O Master’s degree could qualify you to skip the Ph.D. coursework in a Ph.D. program is if 1) the coursework was equally rigorous as the institution you are applying to and 2) if you proposed and defended an empirical thesis. For #1, this is a judgment call.  You may need to hunt down the syllabi for all of the courses you completed in your first Master’s and make an argument to the faculty at your new institution that the content is generally the same. They may disagree. For #2, this is drawn in contrast to a capstone project or paper. To be clear, if you did not propose and defend what the field of I/O psychology could (theoretically) consider a publishable piece of empirical work, your Master’s degree likely will not “count” as Master’s-equivalent in the way you need. The reason for this is that the I/O Master’s is in many ways a baby dissertation – your advisor holds your hand along the way, tells you when you’re going down the wrong path, and rewrites major chunks of your horrible, horrible writing. Through this experience, you are reforged and made ready to tackle the dissertation after a few more years of coursework. If you have a non-empirical thesis, you simply won’t be ready for the experience of writing a dissertation on your own. At all. You will become a 10-year Ph.D. student, and that isn’t something anyone wants.
  4. Even if you don’t need to complete a second Master’s degree, you may wish you did. To a degree, Ph.D. programs are designed to break you of your preconceived notions of how research, science, and I/O psychology work, and then rebuild you in the image and mindset of that program. Even if you aren’t technically required to complete a second Master’s degree, you may want to do so anyway because of the coursework and mindset-building that you will miss. For example, Master’s students at ODU complete three very difficult statistics and research methods courses in the course of their Master’s coursework (i.e., the first two years of our five-year program).  Students that have come in post-Master’s have not always had the same statistical and methods training that they would have received if they had been Master’s students at ODU, which makes the next several years much more difficult. Remember to consider what you might not experience as a result of skipping two years of a program. What you gain in “program years” you may lose in “knowledge years.”

If you do already have a Master’s degree, one additional thing to consider when you apply is what effect that degree will have on how your application is interpreted.  If you have a Master’s in another field, the first thing faculty will ask is, “How do I know this person won’t jump ship on I/O too?” If you have a Master’s in I/O from another institution that has an I/O Ph.D., the first thing faculty will ask is, “Why didn’t their own institution want them to continue to the Ph.D.?” If you have a Master’s in I/O from another institution that doesn’t have an I/O Ph.D., the first thing faculty will ask is, “Why didn’t they pursue the Ph.D. in the first place?” In all three cases, your personal statement should be very clear in answering these questions.

It is also recommended, more strongly than for undergraduate applicants, that you reach out directly to faculty in the programs to which you want to apply. Explain your situation and ask them bluntly if they accept/welcome students with existing Master’s degrees. Their response will tell you more than this website ever can.

Torture, the APA, and I/O Psychology

2015 August 12
by Richard N. Landers

If you haven’t heard by now, based upon several independent investigations and public accusations of wrongdoing, the American Psychological Association commissioned a law firm to create what is referred to in the media as the Hoffman report, an independent investigation of the degree to which the APA was involved in the support of the CIA’s torture program in the wake of 9/11. Within this report, it was found that numerous APA officials, including the ethics director, colluded with the CIA to ensure that the stance of the APA, as conveyed in public policy statements, provided broad support to their policies of torture.  In reaction to this, the APA has apologizedsome psychologists resigned from the APA, and a federal investigation is looming. In general, this seems to be a failure of individuals within the APA, and not of the organization’s ethics code – instead, that code was interpreted as “loosely” as possible to create these statements.  Regardless, without a doubt, public trust in the APA – and psychologists in general – has been diminished.

SIOP has also responded, and the gist is: “torture is bad, and we are all harmed by this.” I was personally not surprised by the lack of a more specific response. The relationship between the military and psychology is a complicated one, and there is a long history of collaboration with I/O psychologists specifically. We even credit the development of assessment center methodology to the selection of spies in World War II, and the classic Army Alpha and Army Beta tests, created to better place soldiers in World War I, were a major force driving early selection research. We’ve done a lot of good via military research, and a lot of that good has then been applied to other, much smaller organizations. Our most major and longest-lasting framework for defining job performance across all jobs comes from a massive military project called Project A.

So where should the line be drawn? This is a question I’ve been personally struggling with, as I ponder pursuing military funding for some of my own projects. I don’t think the military is inherently bad – if it could be considered evil, it is a necessary one, to some degree – but in the back of my mind, I must now consider if the outcomes of my research could ever be used to help kill people. As of five years ago, that’s not a question I ever thought I’d ask myself.

On one hand, the military is an organization much like any other, albeit huge. It is a highly complex network of hierarchical command relationships, cultures and subcultures, many of which are dysfunctional or at least non-optimized. By bringing psychological research to the military, as I/Os have for over a century, those relationships can be improved. Soldiers can live better lives. People can be placed into positions where they can display their talents. Training and development can waste less time. Skills needed for civilian careers can be developed through military service. And given the scope of the military, even small gains can have significant organization-wide and even nationwide benefits.

On the other hand, a much more straightforward problem: the military quite literally kills people to fulfill its core organizational mission. In many cases, this is done without their target even being provided an opportunity to fight back, many of them likely to be innocent civilians. To an extent, taking money from the military or conducting research with the military implicitly approves of its tactics.

There is also the practical side. Although this is a nuanced issue in reality, a researcher that has taken military funding at any point, for any reason, instantly becomes branded as biased, lacking credibility, and bought-and-purchased among a fair portion of the public. The public, in general, does not care for nuance. To what extent any particular I/O psychologist cares about that is a matter of individual differences.

What the Hoffman report should highlight for us is that the questions struggled with by the APA leadership – whether to bend our morality for the sake of the our organization’s growth, prosperity, and influence – is something I/O’s have dealt with regarding the military since I/O has existed. I imagine our per-member connections to the military are much higher in SIOP than in the APA, broadly. So I’d like to think we’re pretty good at managing it, but do we really know?

Have any I/O’s ever sacrificed their ethics to get access to data, to increase their influence, to make their careers? Do we only not know the names of these people because I/O has, to this point, been pretty small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things? As we continue to grow, perhaps time will tell.