HOW TO RESPOND WHEN WE FIND WE HAVE FALLEN SHORT OF OUR GOALS
RAJ Persaud Consultant Psychiatrist
Life, unfortunately, is often full of disappointments; things frequently don’t work out as we would have liked. The latest research from the psychology of motivation argues that it’s what we do about these predicaments, rather than our moments of success, oddly enough, determines our longer term success. More specifically – it’s how we think about these unpleasant circumstances.
According to the latest research, when faced with a setback, the reflexive tendency we have is to indulge in what is technically termed by psychologists ‘counterfactual thinking’. What this means is, considering what may have been, in comparison to what actually has happened.
To take a common example, we run on to a train platform to catch a train, but the doors close in our face, and the train leaves the station without us. At that moment of disappointment, we are thinking automatically about what may have been – we might have been on that train. This is the ‘counterfactual’. It’s because we focus on what might have been – we could be in the warmth of the carriage journeying to our destination – in comparison to the windswept platform going nowhere – that we feel upset.
Notice an extremely important point – our level of upset might be linked with how much we dwell on what might have been. Given that getting upset about things or emotionally aroused can be motivating, this is also of crucial importance in determining our drive for success. Notice another perhaps rather gruesome fact – suppose that train we missed got involved in a crash further down the track. Then we will be doing the opposite counterfactual – we could have been on that train and injured. We will feel relieved to the extent we consider the alternative possibility of being on the train, instead of on the platform.
So, when you get on the weighing scales and discover you haven’t lost what you wanted to, you dwell on what might have been. You might have been the svelte figure you had hoped for. You then think about what happened to produce this result. As your review your past week or day, you perhaps should not have eaten this or that. You should, maybe, have done more exercise, or more of this or that. It’s this considering of other possibilities, which seems crucial to determining our longer term ability to recover from set back, and return to the course we have set ourselves.
Those who are least likely to attain goals, don’t do this thinking process of considering what other possibilities were available, and therefore what alternative options they should have chosen in order to attain a different result.
Going back to the train example, if when we consider we might have caught that train we review what we did that meant we missed it, if we resolve not to do those things again, then we are more likely to catch trains in the future. If, however, we don’t take another look at the events leading up to missing the train, or we come to the conclusion that there was no alternative, empty platforms are going to be a regular aspect of our future destiny.
Another reason for a lack of review of alternative possibilities is, if we arrive on the platform, and there is no train at all. This lack of a ‘close shave’ means we tend not to dwell on the counterfactual – what might have been. It’s narrowly missing our goal that forces us to consider alternative possibilities. If you believe that your’re very wide of the mark in terms of the gap between your target and where you actually are, lets say in weight, then it’s unlikely again you will review alternative possibilities and seek to do things differently, so making your future better.
Ways of sharpening up your counterfactual thinking, so it produces more motivation, are not just to consider what might have been, but what you might have done differently to produce a better future for your self. In particular, it might be better to be very specific. Not – I should have tried harder – but more specifically, what I ate on Saturday afternoon was bad for me, and combine this with counterfactuals about what positive thing you should have done differently. So instead of I shouldn’t have eaten that cheesecake on Saturday afternoon – make it – what positive thing you should have done instead. Instead of eating the cheesecake, I should have chosen a healthier option, and I should have gone for a walk that afternoon after the meal.
So to summarise – what the latest thinking in psychology is telling us is whenever we fail at a goal, it’s crucial to consider what else was possible ie hitting our target. Also what alternatives there were in our behaviour choices, which could have delivered the goal, instead of the failure we are now wallowing in.
Instead of focusing on how you could have been on the train – consider what you should have differently that morning to get you on the train next time.
When Goal Pursuit Fails: The Functions of Counterfactual Thought in Intention Formation Social Psychology, Volume 42, Issue 1, 2011, Pages 19-27 Kai Epstude, Neal J. Roese
RAJ PERSAUD IS CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRIST WORKING IN PRIVATE PRACTICE AND IS AUTHOR OF ‘THE MIND: A USERS GUIDE’ PUBLISHED BY BANTAM PRESS