Why Accountability Backfired

October 10th, 2014

In the last post (When Accountability Backfires) I asked,

Why do I still turn off my office lights religiously, while I have not continued with DuoLingo?

Thank you for your insightful comments to that post. I love this tribe of savvy and sharp thinkers. You are an amazing community, and I’m grateful.

Here is my summary of the theories you all have offered:

  • A person was holding me accountable, not a computer. [Heather, Pawel, Jeff]
  • I value one outcome more than the other. [Josh, Kirk, Terry, Anya]
  • I value my relationship with Kim. [Heather, Josh, Brad, Terry, Anya, Dan, Keith, Brett, Kirk, Angie, Jeff]
  • Intrinsic rewards are more motivating. [Kevin]
  • Extrinsic rewards are more motivating. [Pawel]
  • A harsh or unfair penalty generates resentment.  [Julie, Brad]
  • A streak isn’t the same as progress. [Julie]
  • Misaligned values (or a shift in values over time) drive noncompliance. [Victoria]
  • Perceptions about others’ motivations/intentions drive behavior.  [Sarah]
  • Easier goals are more likely to get done. [Angie]

As promised, here are a couple more offerings from me, that weave together some of your theories:


Theory #1: When one is not fully bought in to the value of a new behavior, it is hard to continue in the face of failures or setbacks.

For example, if you’re not excited about exercising, it is harder to get back into a routine, once you’ve slipped. It takes extra energy and motivation to re-generate momentum.

With the post-it note, I think over time I had become more intrinsically motivated to do the right thing. Extrinsic accountability is a great way to kick-start a change. My answerability to someone else promoted a new and desirable behavior. Then there was a tipping point. Once I felt confident and competent in my new behaviors, external accountability was no longer required. In the case of the Great DuoLingo Rebellion of 2014, however, I never was fully bought-in to the idea that I needed to practice every day. DuoLingo is a hard master, insisting on daily obedience. When my streak was over, I was forced to evaluate if I wanted to keep slogging on, daily. I quickly (though not necessarily consciously) calculated it wasn’t worth the hassle.


Theory #2 (and this may be closest to the heart of the matter): The strength of the relational connection correlates to the sustainability of the new behavior.  

Kim was the individual holding me accountable for the office lights. I value Kim, our relationship, and her opinion of me. I don’t know Luis von Ahn or anyone else at Duolingo, and I don’t care what they think of me. Even after I rebelled against Kim’s accountability mechanism (the post-it note), I remain committed to being a better man, for her.

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2 Responses to “Why Accountability Backfired”

  1. Good summary Chip. I especially relate to theory #1 and believe it carries excellent insight into work related change and what you have to take into account when leading a team through that change.

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