[This post is part of a series on empathy gaps. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Did you know you undermine some of your best efforts to do challenging things, especially involving personal change? You do. We all do, through an effect that makes sense when you get it, but most people don’t realize undermines them.
The effect is this
When you feel one emotion you generally can’t conceive of your motivations when feeling a different emotion.
Or more to the point
When you plan to do something you feel one set of emotions, often enthusiasm. When you act on them you feel different emotions, usually not enthusiasm, which often run counter to your goals and override them.
When you plan a project in one emotional state and implement it in another your emotions will often catch you off guard and discourage or derail you from doing the project.
If you don’t understand the effect you can’t do much about it. You’ll reactively succumb to it. Even if you know about it it’s hard to overcome. Psychologist have recently started studying the effect, calling it empathy gaps.
I’ll describe the effect today and give some examples, then describe some research and experiments that demonstrate it tomorrow. I’m not familiar with research into how to overcome the effect — I find academic research tends to study problems more than solve them — so I’ll write some techniques I’ve found to help
Examples of Empathy Gaps
As you read these examples, think of how they or ones like them have affected you. Have you noticed the effect before?
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to overcome these problems? Learning about the effect can help you overcome it and learn to avoid it, which I’ll cover tomorrow. Being aware of the patterns is the first starting point.
1. Trying to hurry through a hot shower on a cold morning
You wake up late for an appointment and have to hurry. Say it’s cold out and you tell yourself you will take a very fast shower, maybe only a few minutes. As soon as you feel the hot water the feelings of hurriedness disappear. You know the feeling: no matter how important the meeting, you feel comfortable under that warm water. You want to relax, slow down, and enjoy the shower.
The empathy gap is that before feeling the hot water, you will have a hard time imagining how much the hot water will make you forget about the meeting want to relax.
Here’s why the effect is so insidious to achieving your goals. Even people ready to work hard devote resources generally won’t be prepared for what empathy gaps do: they change your motivations. It’s not that it’s hard to turn off the water — it’s that you stop wanting to. Your values change.
We think of our values as fundamental and difficult to change. Empathy gaps show a big hole in that perspective. The values may change only for a few minutes, but they do. And in that time, you can act contrary to otherwise important goals. The appointment goes from important to irrelevant in seconds.
Unfortunately, the change in values and motivation may be big and feel permanent while in the new emotional state, but may disappear as soon as that state ends.
The shower example is simple and of modest importance, but the effect applies to bigger cases. Let’s look at some other cases.
2. Trying to eat healthily surrounded by rich foods
You tell yourself you want to eat healthier. Most of the time you do. But when you have a rich chocolate cake or pile of cookies fresh and warm from the oven; or people around you are eating a lot, your motivation changes. However much your mind was once filled with thoughts of willpower, success, and healthiness, seeing and smelling those cookies changes your thoughts not to “I want to give up” but to “I deserve this.”
The difference between “I want to give up” and “I deserve this” is big. If you only felt like you wanted to give up — that is, if only your motivation decreased — you try to increase your motivation. You could use your willpower. When we plan and try to anticipate problems we expect to face decreased motivation. But when we implement we don’t face that problem. We face different motivations. We want to indulge ourselves. We’re not discouraged and in need of willpower. Our motivation changes direction and we forget the old motivation.
While indulging ourselves we feel deserving and appreciate and value the pleasure we feel. As soon as the food is gone we stop valuing pleasure and indulgence and realize we broke our pledge. We can’t think of why we did that — another empathy gap in the opposite direction.
3. Distance running
If you run long distances you’ve probably told yourself before a long run that, barring injury, you would run the whole way. Then during the run you get tired and feel overwhelming urges to stop. Many marathoners speak of hitting a wall. If you’ve hit it, you know how difficult continuing to run becomes.
You may then also know how quickly after stopping running you feel like you actually could have kept going.
4. Maintaining an exercise regiment
Maybe you set a resolution to exercise regularly. When you planned you said to yourself “This time I’m going to do it. No matter what it takes, I will go to the gym three days a week for a year.” You expect later you might feel decreased motivation to go to the gym and tell yourself you’ll get yourself to go.
Maybe that happens for a while, but something more difficult to handle happens. Some time when you have to work late you feel so strongly you want to relax and unwind that you don’t even think of going to the gym. Or maybe weekend you wake up tired the morning you were going to go to the gym and feel like you just want to stay in bed that day.
You don’t think “I want to give up.” You think “The bed feels so comfortable. I’ve been working so hard lately. I deserve to say in bed today.” Then after skipping a few times you start thinking “Not going doesn’t hurt my life at all. I don’t need to keep forcing myself. I’m just not a gym person.”
5. Talking to your boss
You decide to ask your boss for a raise. Or tell him or her a difficult message you have to deliver.
The night before you work out what to say, when, and how. You work up the nerve to do it. That morning you leave the house resolute to do it.
Then just before you planned to do it you can’t do it. You’re scared. You think of all the problems that could happen.
When you planned to talk to your boss you said you’d get through this, but in the moment you get nervous.
6. Not getting angry
You’re going to meet that old friend or family member who always gets you angry. Before meeting you tell yourself you won’t get mad no matter what.
When you meet, the person keeps acting like a know-it-all or however they annoy you. You stop thinking of how you don’t want to get angry and start thinking of how they need to be taught a lesson or learn some respect. You think if you say just the right line, they’ll stop. Of course that line tends to be a provocative jab that only prompts an argument. You don’t think, “I want to get angry.” You think “I’ll teach them a lesson.”
And you end up angry not because you didn’t hold yourself back from anger but because you indulged in teaching them a lesson.
The next day you look back at the angry argument you walked right into, wondering how you could have had that happen when you told yourself you wouldn’t let it happen.
7. Trying to wake up quickly when tired
When you go to sleep before a morning when you have to wake up early you tell yourself no matter what you’ll get up immediately when the alarm goes off.
When you wake up you feel comfortable under the covers and prefer indulging in that comfort. Thoughts of your otherwise important meeting don’t even enter your head.
Okay, those are some examples of empathy gaps you’ve probably experienced. Tomorrow I’ll describe some research and experiments.
By the way, today is the first of a five-part series:
- Introduction (this post)
- Research and experiments
- Why empathy gaps make sense
- Overcoming them