Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a post was published to the Robert H. Smith School of Business Research at Smith page and originally appeared under the title, “How social media does and doesn’t motivate you: Why seeing friends attain fitness goals sometimes inspires, sometimes doesn't.”  

When you’re on social media a lot, it can seem like everyone is meeting their fitness goals. They’re running marathons, competing in triathlons, going on scenic hikes, doing yoga with goats. These messages are probably excellent motivation for your exercise goals. Right?

Yes and no, Maryland Smith researchers find in a recent study.

Yes, those of us who have more digital social connections do respond more productively when we see how much exercise our connections are doing. But, no, because those messages often lead us to set unrealistic exercise goals for ourselves and then we simply fail.

The research touches on the power of interventions to “nudge” people to change their behavior in ways that have important societal implications.

It’s already well understood that social norms can motivate us to change our behavior. But, Maryland Smith’s Ritu Agarwal and Guodong "Gordon" Gao, with Indiana University’s Che-Wei Liu, a Maryland Smith Ph.D. graduate, wanted to find out how the effects manifest across individuals in a socially connected digital world.

Their research offers up new empirical evidence from a two-month randomized field experiment that included more than 7,000 people in an online physical activity community.

They found that social connectivity plays a big role in how we set exercise goals. People with higher levels of social connectivity were more susceptible to social norms messages that pertained to how many community members were setting goals. And those who have more followers than they actually followed were the most susceptible.

“Strikingly,” the researchers ...