Values and Motivation

From Measurement to Misalignment: Understanding When and Why We Stray From Underlying Values

Organizations measure employees—and we measure ourselves—more and more by numbers. We rely on standardized test scores to evaluate quality teaching and on our number of steps or calories to evaluate our health. Although quantitative indicators like these can provide useful feedback, they rarely capture our broad underlying goals and values in full. For this reason, a narrow focus on indicators can in some cases actually harm the underlying goals they are intended to measure—what is called “misalignment.” Teaching-to-the-test, for example, at a cost to overall student learning is misaligned from the value of quality teaching. In this line of work, we investigate 1) what factors lead to misalignment from underlying goals and 2) how people feel when misaligned. Across studies on Psychology graduate students, K-12 teachers, and undergraduate students, we find that a key predictor of misalignment is the perceived social value of the indicator. As one example, the more graduate students feel judged by their publication count, the more they pursue publication even at a cost to sound scientific contribution. In addition, we find that experiencing misalignment from underlying goals leads to a reduced sense of authenticity and well-being.