The protégé effect: how doing for others makes us do more

Looking for a way to get better at something? Do it for someone else.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “when we teach, we learn.” Research has shown that when students teach a topic to someone else, they demonstrate a greater effort to learn material compared to students learning for their own sake. This is called the protégé effect.

Based on this learning-by-teaching model, the University of Pennsylvania has implemented a “cascading mentoring” program where college-level computer science students tutor younger students. Both younger and older students benefit. At Vanderbilt University, a computer program called “Betty’s Brain” asks students to teach Betty (a simulated student) about ecology. In doing so, students put more effort into learning the material. Further, the “teach-back” method is used in healthcare to ensure patients understand their health information by asking them to explain the provider’s orders in their own words. Clearly, teaching as a learning tool is an effective strategy for increased understanding.

Why is this?

Why we do more for others

In order to teach someone something, you need to know that topic well enough to be able to explain it simply and logically. Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” If the student asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, it identifies gaps in your understanding that you might have otherwise missed. So in order to be prepared to answer students’ questions or identify mistakes, the teacher must understand the topic well.

Still, the utility of understanding the topic well before teaching it doesn’t fully explain why students would be so motivated to do so.

Human connection at the core

The relationship between the learner and the teacher further explain why teachers work harder to learn a topic for students than they would for themselves. Teachers feel sense of pride and accomplishment when their students are able to learn and answer questions correctly. Teachers feel responsible for their students’ success or failure, and this is extremely motivating.

It’s not only teachers that care about the success of their protégé. If you grew up in the 90s, you may remember the fad of Tamagotchi, the virtual pet on a keychain that kids had to take care of. If you neglected duties like taking your pet out or feeding them, the pet died. I remember in my 4th grade class, kids were so transfixed on feeding their virtual pet that the teacher banned them from the classroom. It was a testament to how much kids in my class cared for the success of their little companion.

When we’ve invested in someone else’s success, we feel committed to their cause. If you’ve ever ran or spectated at a race, you’ve probably noticed people wearing t-shirts for charities. You may have also spotted Achilles International, a fantastic organization that enables people with disabilities to participate in mainstream running events and achieve their goals with a buddy.

When attempting a magnificent feat like a marathon, knowing that your race will benefit another person motivates you to get through those difficult, painstaking miles. The sense of responsibility you feel for that person (or a charity’s beneficiaries) pushes you to go the extra mile.

No matter who it is we’re tutoring, we want our “student” to achieve; so much so that we go to the extra effort. This actually makes a lot of sense, and aligns perfectly with explanations of employee motivation from Herzberg, which explains that what truly motivates people to work is responsibility, achievement, and recognition. Therefore, by being responsible for another person’s success, we are more motivated to do more.

How to apply the protégé effect to achieve more

Basically, if you want to motivate yourself, try doing it for someone else in addition to yourself. I’ve written before about how having someone to hold you accountable (an accountabilibuddy) keeps you motivated to do the small actions to achieve your daily goals. Being responsible for another person’s success motivates you to check in on your own progress. If you neglect to do the small, daily actions you need to do to achieve your goal, you’re suddenly not only letting yourself down; you’re also letting your buddy down. The good news is that behavior is contagious: when you achieve small goals, your buddy is inspired to do so; and vise-versa. It’s a win-win.

If you want to test out whether the protégé effect can help motivate you to do more and achieve your goals, be sure to sign up for Supporti’s pilot program today.