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
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
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