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human motivation article notes

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PSYC 471
Richard Koestner

Motivation Article #5: If at First, You Don’t Succeed Despite repeated failure at attempts to change aspects of their behaviour, people make frequent attempts at self-change. The generally negative outcome of many such self- change efforts makes it difficult to understand why so many individuals persist at these attempts. The authors have described this cycle of failure and renewed effort as a “False Hope Syndrome” characterized by unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease and consequences of self-change attempts. Interestingly, people tend to make the same resolutions year after year, vowing on average 10 times to eradicate a particular vice. Obviously, every renewed vow represents a prior failure; otherwise, there would be no need for yet another attempt. Equally obviously, unsuccessful attempts do not diminish the likelihood of making future plans for self-change. Close to 25% of people who make New Years resolutions give up their resolutions by the end of the first week. New Year’s resolvers typically report making the same pledge for 5 years or more before they manage a 6-month success. Smoking, gambling and alcohol addiction are also subject to high rates of relapse. The False Hope Syndrome The cycle of failure, interpretation, and renewed effort constitutes what we have called “the false hope syndrome.” First, people undertake a difficult (or impossible) self-change task to rid themselves of undesirable but intrinsically rewarding behaviours. Most ultimately fail to achieve their goal. Then, having failed, they interpret their failure in such a way that the failure is seen as far from inevitable; people convince themselves that with a few adjustments, success will be within their grasp. Finally, they embark on yet another attempt, propelled by their memories of their previous, limited success and/or their positive expectations for the future. Why Self-Change Attempts Fail There are 4 main sources of failure, each of which is coordinated with an unrealistic expectation about self-change: 1) Amount, 2) Speed, 3) Ease, 4) Effects on other aspects of one’s life. People often believe that they can change more than is feasible. Expectations often exceed what is feasible and lead people to reject more modest, achievable goals. People often predict that they will change more quickly and more easily than is possible. There is an optimistic bias in people’s anticipated speed and success at achieving desired goals. Likewise, people believe that the changes that they desire are more feasible or easier to attain than is often the case. People often believe that making a change will improve their lives more than can reasonably be expected. For instance, people believe not only that dieting will result in weight loss but that the weight loss will in turn get them a job promotion or a romantic partner. Normal dieters and patients with anorexia or bulimia all share an expectation that dieting and thinness will produce “overgeneralized self-improvement.” It is not surprising that dieters have inflated notions of the power of thinness. The covers of women’s magazines convey the impression that losing weight will result in a better life. The way that self-changers frame their goals may also contribute to their failure to achieve them. Typically, they pursue an inhibitory goal; success is defined in terms of not giving in to temptation. Self-modifications would succeed more often if self-modifiers framed their goals more positively, instead of focusing negatively on instances of disinhibition; if they did, then successes might well outnumber failures. Another strategy might be to set the inhibitory goal more distally; that is, instead of counting each instance of overeating, for example, as an instance of failure, failure would be acknowledged only if some longer term goal were not achieved. Occasional lapses would thus be acceptable. In Wegner’s processing theory, the very thoughts that tend to undermine successful self- change become more likely to occur as stress or mental load is added to the cognitive system. Wenzlaff and Wegner noted that those with unrealistically high expectations concerning their mental control abilities may become excessively self-critical and may panic following mere cognitive slips, let alone behavioural ones. This distress further depletes cognitive resources, increasing the likelihood of failure. Baumeister postulates that human beings have a limited amount of energy available for self-regulation; self-change efforts fall short because of energy depletion, and such depletion is exacerbated by the addition of stress or mental load. Appropriate mental hygiene or avoidance of stressors might serve to facilitate successful self-change by preventing ironic processes or self-regulatory energy depletion from undermining one’s goal-directed behaviour. If the goals one sets are unrealistic, then failure is inevitable regardless of how hard one tries or how well one manages one’s mental, emotional, and physical resources. Whereas unattainable goals should theoretically be abandoned after a few attempts, if the intention behind them persists, so do the goals. One’s goals are generally perceived as important, controllable and desirable, so individuals persist in efforts to achieve their unrealistic self-change goals. People are generally overly optimistic in predicting favourable outcomes for themselves. Even when these overly optimistic expectations are disconfirmed, people are motivated to use a variety of techniques for maintaining their unrealistic beliefs. Self-change efforts are frequently doomed to failure from the outset by the unrealistic expectations brought to the enterprise. Impossible amounts, speed, ease, and rewards of change are anticipated. How People (Mis)Interpret Their Failures In terms of classical attribution theory, attributions for failure could be either internal or external, but in either case, the attribution is likely to help the person to avoid facing facts. Those who engage in wishful thinking (ex: avoiding the facts instead of recognizing the need to use a practical technique such as stimulus control or even just willpower) are more likely to fail at their resolution. In a study, in the case of failure, change was described as resulting from external factors and lack of willpower and as being intrinsically more difficult than in the case of success. Successful change was seen to result from greater personal effort. Example with dieters: Dieters believe that they can exert effort for only so long before giving out, as if effort were a muscle that gets tired. Dieting becomes more difficult as it progresses, even if a constant effort is maintained, but the dieter may be tempted to assume that the difficult of dieting remains constant and that therefore the problem must stem from declining effort. People do not appreciate the fact that the ease of losing weight and keeping it off may well depend on how overweight they are to begin with, not to mention a host of other constraining factors that ca
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