are too high, so we fail. We run out of energy. We start to back slide.
We could have set lower goals but we don't. The fact is self-change,
especially big, fast, easy change, is usually far harder than we imagine
Then Polivy and Herman ask "How does defeat get turned into
some new hope?" Sometimes the self-helper, who has failed,
concludes "I didn't try hard enough" or "I didn't have the
time/energy." Of course, one could always try harder or give more
time; thus, there is reason to try to change again. Or one can conclude
"the diet didn't work" or "that self-help technique wasn't right for me"
(the failure wasn't my fault!). Of course, there are thousands of other
diets, many other techniques, more promising programs to buy,
hundreds of new self-help books; thus, you find another basis for
"Why do people try again and again?" The same hoped for rewards
are still there. Often the previous attempt did produce some success at
first--that memory of success motivates us to try again. Just making a
commitment to try again is reinforcing, helps us feel in control, and
gives us hope. Overconfidence is, in part, ignoring the reality of our
past failures so we can believe we will succeed next time. However,
the repeated starting and stopping of self-change efforts--the yo-
yoing--takes a toll, sometimes the tasks are unpleasant (like dieting)
and certainly the failures are frustrating and may make us self-critical.
So, for some people, this repeated failure may take a toll on our self-
On average, it takes 5 or 6 tries to make most self-improvements.
But repeated tries doesn't guarantee eventual success. If you have
had several failures and have seen little evidence that the desired
change is actually possible, consider (a) lowering your goals--settle for
less or a slower pace--or (b) revising your self-change methods so
your self-change plans are scientifically more sound. Eventually, it is
wise to face the fact that you don't know how to change at this time,
accept that reality, and set about learning what you need to know to
change. No need to be a victim of your own false (unrealistic) hopes.
Rather than viewing the common repetitive urge to try to change
as a problem and serious human failing, as Polivy & Herman seem to
do, I choose to see this dogged perseverance as beneficial overall and
probably an important element in human evolutionary survival. The
problem isn't so much foolishly taking on impossible self-change tasks,
but rather neglecting to gain the knowledge needed to know how to
make the desired changes before launching another self-improvement
project. Getting this knowledge is often admittedly very difficult...our
ignorance is a challenging barrier.
I recently read an example of life's awesome complexity (Fischhoff,
1992). I'll share it with you. It should make you question quick, simple
solutions for and advice about almost any human problem.
Researchers have gathered ideas for preventing or handling a rape.