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Why Good Intentions Fail

By Momentum3 min read

Let’s say you have just had a heart attack.

It came out of nowhere and has really shaken you: heart attacks happen to other people. As you recover in hospital, your doctor comes to you with a blunt message: change your lifestyle or you will die. How do you rate your chances of making that change? How confident are you that you would successfully change your lifestyle and therefore go on to lead a long and fruitful life?

Think for a moment. As a percentage, how likely are you to be able to make the change?

If you are like most people, you would rate your chances pretty high. This is an example of a well-recognized bias in psychology called the ‘optimism bias’, where people systematically over-estimate the likelihood of positive outcomes. The results from medical data show that only 1 in 7 people actually make the advised change [1]. But that’s on average, and of course you’re not average

Why on earth is the number so low? Surely it’s not a lack of motivation. You would also imagine that most people also have a degree of support from loved ones to encourage them to change. Yet change doesn’t happen. The simple fact is, intentional change is hard. We are blinded to this because we experience change regularly, so we know change happens. But making an intention, and then following through on it, isn’t easy. Think of what happens every New Year

One explanation for this can be found in a famous study led by Roy Baumeister. Students came into a room and were put into two groups, one could eat freshly baked cookies, the other could only eat radishes. The psychologists then left for 20 minutes. Interestingly, no radish-eaters transgressed and sneaked a cookie. On their return the students were told that the first experiment was over and were given a problem solving challenge. What they weren’t told is that the problem was unsolvable. The psychologists weren’t interested in problem solving ability, but in how quickly people gave up, to see if one group would persist longer than the other

Which group do you think persisted longer?

The cookie-eating group persisted for an average of 19 minutes. The radish-eaters only 9 minutes. Why?

Those who could only eat radishes had used up their willpower resisting the delicious smelling cookies and so they had fewer reserves left to persist on the problem solving. Willpower, it turns out, is a finite, exhaustible resource. Yet most intentions to change rely almost entirely on a belief that if we feel strongly motivated about a goal, we will therefore make the desired change driven by our iron will

So that’s why, come February, our annual gym membership isn’t seeming like such a great idea!

[1] Reference taken from the brilliant book ‘Switch’ by Chip an Dan Heath

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