In it together: Why a sense of “shared reality” is vital in mentoring

By Jean Rhodes

“If you have ever been to an award ceremony, then you know the drill” observes psychologist Abdo Elnakouri and his colleagues, “Awardees dutifully list off those who helped them along the way: mentors, family, friends, and perhaps a surprisingly crucial acquaintance or two. Without them, the crowd is told, success would not have been possible.” Although deflecting praise and sharing credit may seem almost ritualistic, Elnakouri et al. (2023)’s important new study, (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,) provides a scientific basis for this gratitude. We often look to individual factors like self-control, grit, and growth mindset as the cornerstones of success, but it is relationships with “instrumental others” (IOs)—those people who help us reach our goals—that often help us the most. As the authors note, “having instrumental others by one’s side can be a boon for goal success.”

To explain this, the authors introduce the concept of “shared reality” (that wonderful sense of truly connecting over shared feelings and beliefs), a “mind meld of sorts… it distinguished from adjacent concepts (e.g., empathy, perspective taking) in capturing the experience of sharing a similar subjective state about something in the world—a target referent—with at least one other person (see Echterhoff, Higgins, & Levine, 2009; Higgins et al., 2021, for reviews).” We all have this yearning for a “shared reality” and eagerness to think that others see the world through the same lens.

Well, it turns out that this sense of shared reality is essential to reaching our goals. It is a “key variable explaining why certain relationships facilitate goal success more than others. Unlike closeness and liking, shared reality involves creating a shared understanding of events, people, and objects external to the relationship (Rossignac-Milon et al., 2021)…..Given that reaching one’s goals involves successfully navigating this external world, we propose that creating this sense of shared reality about the external world may be especially critical for facilitating goal success because it may validate not only the importance of one’s goals and one’s sense of how to achieve them but also the feeling that one’s goals are attainable and that one is truly equipped to attain them.”


The goal of the study, involving 1,326 participants, was to explore (a) whether people experience greater shared reality with more IOs and (b) whether those who experience shared reality with IOs tend to succeed at their goals.

  • those who perceived their romantic partners as instrumental for their goals experienced more shared reality with them.
  • participants shared a greater sense of reality with people they deemed as IOs compared to noninstrumental others.
  • shared reality was linked to more goal success initially, after 3-4 weeks, and even correlated with higher Grade Point Averages.
  • the effects remained significant even when controlling for IO liking, closeness, and trust.
  • shared reality appears to promote self-efficacy which, in turn, may help in goal achievement.

Implications for Mentoring Programs:.

Friendship is not enough:s Mentors should find ways to connect around the ideas, values, attitudes, experiences, identities, etc. that they may share with their mentees. As  the authors note “While liking and closeness are a critical part of effective relationships (Fitzsimons & Shah, 2008; Orehek, Forest, & Wingrove, 2018), cherished relationships often also grow out of deeply resonant shared experiences and perceptions of the world (Prinzing et al., 2023; Rossignac-Milon et al., 2021)…Whether it be bonding over a shared emotional trauma, a shared political outrage, or shared excitement about the latest Netflix sensation, people seek to establish a shared reality—the perception of sharing inner states (feelings, beliefs, concerns) in common with others about the world (Echterhoff, Higgins, & Levine, 2009; Hardin & Higgins, 1996; Higgins, 2019).” Although people do not indiscriminately experience shared reality, they stop paying attention to traditional in-group markers, like those of race, ethnicity, and class, when a person is perceived trustworthy, authentic, and helpful.

Goals strengthen ties: The authors note that people tend to like and feel close to people who support active their goals; “Thinking about achieving straight “A’s” motivates people to maintain closeness for their study partner (an instrumental other) while distancing themselves from a friend who is irrelevant for their academic goals (a noninstrumental other).” Moreover, “the more goals, the better. An instrumental other who motivates you to go to the gym and is helpful for a work project is, on average, liked more than an instrumental other who only does one of those two things (Orehek, Forest, & Wingrove, 2018).” And, although people may like the objects (e.g., books, equipment, technology) that helps them achieve their goals, those objects don’t have minds. Shared reality is a critical way of connecting to other minds.

Supportive accountability is vital: These findings align with our previous research on the role mentors can play in helping to set and achieve goals and provide supportive accountability to achieve them (see MentorPRO, which can help in this regard). By establishing a shared reality, mentors can better understand the aspirations, challenges, and perspectives of their mentees. This understanding allows mentors to provide tailored guidance, support, and accountability, ensuring that mentees stay on track and achieve their goals.

In essence, for mentoring relationships to truly flourish and drive success, there needs to be a deep-seated shared reality between the mentor and mentee and a focus not just on friendship but on actively encouraging mentees to reach their goals.

The authors conclude that…

“When trying to understand why some people are successful, it can be tempting to chalk it up to personal strengths. Some people just have “it.” The current work adds to a growing body of literature highlighting that the “it” is often an “us”; that is, success in goal pursuit is rarely a solo endeavor. Specifically, we found that people tended to experience greater shared reality with instrumental others, and this tendency was associated with reaching one’s goals. These studies highlight the importance of relating to the minds of instrumental others as well as the dynamic way people’s goal pursuit is shaped by the extent to which they experience a shared reality with others.”