Stuck in the Shell: Middle-Stage Goal Pursuers Avoid (But Need) Social Reference Point



When people arrive in the middle stage of goal pursuit, they deliberately avoid social reference points that could potentially outperform them—a phenomenon we term “stuck-in-the-shell effect.” We use the frequency of head turns, eye movements, and direct choices to document this U-shaped pattern of avoidance behavior and show that this behavior is indeed driven by a fear of being outperformed: Middle-stage goal pursuers avoid social reference points that are relevant, proximal, and potentially superior. Paradoxically, however, in both individual and collective goal contexts, we found that the very social reference points that middle-stage goal pursuers attempt to avoid could ultimately restore their motivation and pull them out of the slump. Our findings connect the psychophysics of goal pursuit with information avoidance literature and shed light on why middle-stage goal pursuers get stuck in an environment that is rich with social information.