Empathy Gaps — one of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done: the series

If you want to change something important in your life, you’d better understand the concept called “empathy gaps.”

An example of an empathy gap is when you say in December you’ll go to the gym twice a week for the next year, that you have the fortitude to do it and will simply will yourself to do it no matter what, then find yourself in February saying you’re not in the mood and you’ll get to it later. Or you say you’ll ask that person out with confidence, but when you go to approach you lose your nerve.

An empathy gap is when you feel one way in one situation, like when you plan something and feel enthusiastic and confident, then when the situation changes you don’t feel the same emotions and motivations, like when you what you planned and feel tired or want to do something else.

I wrote a series that describes this effect, a current research area in psychology, how to avoid it frustrating and discouraging you, and how to use it for you.

Click the table of contents at left to view each post in the series. You’ll be glad you did when you find yourself doing things you only used to plan but never executed.

Long term

Planning without executing not only doesn’t get done the specific project you plan, it teaches you not to plan in the first place. It discourages and frustrates you in the long term, leading to feelings of helplessness and futility.

Planning and executing, even for small things, teaches ability, motivation, enthusiasm, and confidence. When you finish what you plan, you feel able to do bigger things next time.

Empathy gaps being one of the most important barriers to doing tasks, understanding and overcoming them is a major step in turning vicious cycles into virtuous cycles in the most important areas of your life.

One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 1

[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:

  1. Introduction (this post)
  2. Research and experiments
  3. Why empathy gaps make sense
  4. Overcoming them
  5. Examples

One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 2: research and experiments

[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.]

Yesterday I talked about the effect that when you feel one emotion you generally can’t conceive of your motivations when feeling a different emotion, nor do you realize you can’t, also known as empathy gaps. Today let’s look at some research and experiments.

Sexual arousal

A comedian once remarked on the question people suggest you asking before considering unprotected sex, “would you die for it.” He said sometimes when you’re in the moment, you think you might.

Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational (which I recommend), wrote about research he did with George Loewenstein on decisions made when sexually aroused versus not. He had male students answer questions about sexual beliefs and behavior. Here is a partial list.

  • Are women’s shoes erotic?
  • Can you imagine being attracted to a 12-year-old girl?
  • Can you imagine having sex with a 40-year-old woman?
  • Can you imagine having sex with a 50-year-old woman?
  • Can you imagine having sex with a 60-year-old woman?
  • Can you imagine having sex with a man?
  • Could it be fun to have sex with someone who was extremely fat?
  • Could you enjoy sex with someone you hated?
  • Would you take a date to a fancy restaurant to increase your chance of having sex with her?
  • Would you tell a woman that you loved her to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?
  • Would you encourage your date to drink to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?
  • Would you keep trying to have sex after your date says ‘‘no.’’
  • Would you slip a woman a drug to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?

They then asked the students to masturbate but not ejaculate and answer the same questions while aroused.

The results: the subjects found more things sexy and were more likely to say they would perform risky or experimental sexual behavior when aroused than they thought they would be.

Across the 19 questions about sexual preferences, when all the participants were aroused they predicted that their desire to engage in a variety of somewhat odd sexual activities would be nearly twice as high (72% higher) they had predicted when they were cold.

In the five questions about their propensity to engage in immoral activities, when they were aroused they predicted their propensity to be more than twice as high as (136% higher than) they had predicted in the cold state.

Similarly, in the set of questions about using condoms, and despite the warnings that had been hammered into them over the years about the importance of condoms, they were 25% more likely in the aroused state than in the cold state to predict that they would forgo condoms. In all these cases they failed to predict the influence of arousal on their sexual preferences, morality and approach to safe sex.

This effect is stronger than just that their judgment changed. They couldn’t predict that their judgment would change, even in criminal and life-or-death situations.

Physical pain

Another group researched the effect of physical pain (Nordgren, L. F., van Harreveld, F., & van der Pligt, J. (2009). The restraint bias: How the illusion of self-restraint promotes impulsive behavior. Psychological Science, 20, 1532-1528). They tested people’s memory while putting their hands in icy water, which tends to worsen your memory.

Later they grouped people into two groups and asked them how badly the cold water affected their performance. One group had their hands again in icy water when asked to recall the effect, the other group didn’t.

The group with their hands in cold water when asked later estimated the cold water significantly worsened their memory. The group without their hand in cold water when asked didn’t feel the cold water would worsen their memory much.

It seems without feeling the pain, they couldn’t conjure how the pain would affect them.

You know this effect. In the coldness of winter you can’t stand the cold and can’t imagine the weather being so hot as to make you uncomfortable. You’d prefer anything to the biting cold. In the heat of the summer you can’t bear the heat and can’t imagine weather so cold as to be uncomfortable. Anything to get out of that stifling heat.

Emotional pain and bullying

In another set of experiments (Nordgren, L. F., Banas, K., & MacDonald, G. (2010). Empathy gaps for social pain: Why people underestimate the pain of social suffering, 100, 120-128), researchers split people into groups — some socially ostracized, others not. Then they asked each group how others would feel when socially ostracized.

Not only did the group not currently ostracized underestimate the emotional pain ostracized people felt, even the group that was ostracized, when no longer excluded, underestimated that emotional pain too.

In other words, people have a hard time imagining how people in different emotional states than their own feel, even though they’ve experienced those emotions too.

Trouble empathizing with others

Other experiments asked people to estimate what external motivation others would need to overcome challenges, like how much money they or others would need to dance in front of other people. They consistently estimated others would need less money then they themselves would. Presumably when considering if they would dance, they felt the potential embarrassment more strongly than they could imagine it for others.

Valuing things

In other experiments (Boven, Leaf; George Loewenstein, David Dunning (2003). “Mispredicting the endowment effect: underestimation of owners’ selling prices by buyer’s agents”. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 51: 363), researchers asked people how much they would buy or sell a mug for, and how much they thought others would buy or sell the same mug for.

They found people valued the mug differently depending on whether they possessed the mug or not. For example, sellers who said they would sell it at a certain price when they didn’t have it raised the price when they got the mug. Buyers underestimated how much sellers would sell for.

In other words, people’s values changed depending on whether they possessed the thing they valued or if they wanted the thing they valued.

For those of us who think our values stay constant, these results poke holes in those beliefs.

Other research

Here are a few sentences summarizing related research from Ariely and Loewenstien’s paper on their results on sexual arousal, above

  • People who do not own an object underestimate how attached they would be to it and how much money they would require to part with the object if they owned it (Loewenstein & Adler, 1995; Van Boven, Dunning, & Loewenstein, 2000).
  • People who are about to exercise predict they would be less bothered by thirst if they were lost without food or water than do people who have just exercised and are thirsty and warm (Van Boven & Loewenstein, 2003).
  • People who are sated because they have just eaten are less likely to choose a high-calorie snack to consume at a well-defined time in the future than hungry people who have not eaten (Read & van Leeuwen, 1998)
  • People who are hungry because they have not eaten expect to be more interested in eating a plate of spaghetti for breakfast than people who are sated (Gilbert, Gill, & Wilson, 2002)
  • Heroin addicts who are not currently craving because they just received a ‘‘maintenance’’ dose of opioid agonist, value getting an extra dose a week later about half as highly as those asked to value the extra dose an hour earlier, before they have received their maintenance dose (Giordano et al., 2002).
  • Men who are not sexually aroused predicted they would be less likely to engage in sexually aggressive behavior than men who are sexually aroused as a result of viewing photographs of nude women (Loewenstein, Nagin, & Paternoster, 1997)


This effect that when you feel one emotion you generally can’t conceive of your motivations when feeling a different emotion, nor do you realize you can’t seems strong and consistent across many areas of life, including in criminal and potential life-or-death situations.

This page’s goal is to help you improve your life. Empathy gaps seem to undermine this goal. I describe them as insidious because they seem to catch us unaware and seem hard to understand. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to understand them from the perspective of the Model. The next day I’ll use that awareness to talk about what you can do about the effect.

One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 3: why empathy gaps make sense

[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.]

As usual, understanding ourselves better helps us overcome the problems of empathy gapsthat when you feel one emotion you generally can’t conceive of your motivations when feeling a different emotion. Yet as they fundamentally concern being unable to understand things about ourselves, you’d think they were difficult to understand.

On the contrary, you can understand them if you understand your emotional system. Luckily we have an easy way to understand our emotional systems.

Empathy gaps depend on your emotional system

Also as usual, the Model explains this aspect of our emotional systems simply and thoroughly. Recall from this page this representation of the Model.

The Model

The Model says your emotions — that is, your motivations — depend on your environment, your perception, which is subject to your beliefs, and your behavior. Mostly your emotional system processes your perception of your environment as influenced by your beliefs to motivate your behavior.

Recall also that the Model says that our emotional systems evolved to help us survive in our environments. Note our emotions can only help us if they act in the moment. If a lion enters your environment and you have an emotional system that makes you feel scared five minutes later, you’ll probably get eaten before it acts.

Likewise, emotions can hurt us if they motivate us contrary to what would help us. So your emotional system not only doesn’t motivate you counterproductively, it prevents you from overriding it by not letting you access emotions besides the ones it thinks you want.

For example, you probably don’t like feeling hunger. Usually when you feel it you wish you didn’t feel it, which motivates you to satisfy it. If you could in any way choose not to feel it without satisfying it, you’d risk your life. Emotions motivate preserving your life, so an ability to dismiss or override emotions would risk your life.

So it makes sense we would have evolved an emotional system that gives you emotions that work in the moment and keep you from being able to feel any emotions besides the ones it thinks are right for the moment.

Look at the examples from two days ago and yesterday. Each one makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. For example, from an evolutionary perspective, animals like us, whose ancestors lived in environments without empty calories like our worlds, we should feel motivated to eat all we can of fatty and sugary foods. (From a health-in-today’s-world perspective we shouldn’t, but we inherit our emotional systems from our ancestors and that’s what we get.)

I hope this perspective helps make empathy gaps make sense. I think demystifying them and their origins helps make them less insidious and effective. It also points to how to overcome them, which I’ll cover tomorrow.

One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 4: overcoming them

[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.]

Now we are familiar with empathy gaps — that when you feel one emotion you generally can’t conceive of your motivations when feeling a different emotion. We get how insidious they can be in keeping us from improving our lives.

What do we do about them? How do we shield ourselves from them undermining our efforts?

I haven’t found research on effective techniques (please contact me if you know of any) in avoiding, overcoming, or developing resilience to empathy gaps. I only have my understanding of them and my experience. After you get used to identifying and overcoming empathy gaps you’ll start to develop techniques too. I hope my experience helps you avoid some mistakes.



As always, I recommend starting with awareness.

Expect this effect. Expect to feel different emotions as your environment and beliefs change. Learn to foresee these changes.

When you’re in one environment planning to act in another, try to imagine the other — what will affect you, who will be there, the temperature, time constraints, the pace of events, … whatever will change and be relevant to your planned behavior. Are you in a calm environment now planning what to do in the middle of a hectic day tomorrow? Imagine yourself in the new environment. How will you keep cool? Plan accordingly.

Or maybe you’re in a hectic environment now planning for a calm one. How will you motivate yourself and keep your energy up?

Awareness of others

Remember that other people may feel different emotions than you do. Even in the same environment, different beliefs may lead others to perceive the same things differently than you expect.

Be aware of empathy gaps between you and other people. Ask them questions of how they feel, how the situation looks to them, and so on. Don’t assume they feel or see the same as you.


Build experience feeling empathy gaps and overcoming them.

For me, running marathons gave me great experience overcoming empathy gaps because you have to overcome “the wall” all the time. “Walls” come in many forms. As you increase distance, with hills, with summer heat, with other parts of life encroaching, and so on. You have to overcome each of these challenges.

My burpee regiment also forces me to overcome empathy gaps. Since I do them every day, I have to do them in the face of every emotion and environment my life brings me in the morning and evening — being tired, late, busy, drunk, angry, etc. Now when I feel those emotions discouraging or distracting me, I know how I’ve overcome those problems successfully before.

What is your equivalent? You’ve almost certainly overcome empathy gaps, maybe even done an activity like a sport, learning an instrument, etc that taught you to overcome empathy gaps.

When you sense you’re experiencing an empathy gap, notice how it affects you and what works in bridging it. You’ve overcome empathy gaps in the past. What worked then?

Learn from others

You aren’t in this alone. Everyone faces empathy gaps. How do they get over theirs? What can you learn from their experience? From their mistakes?

Change your environment

Since different environments provoke different emotions, changing your environment can help overcome empathy gaps if you do so wisely.

The classic example of changing your environment to change your emotions is to move food away from you if you don’t want to eat it. Having it near you provokes feelings of craving.

Another example is to avoid hanging out with friends that don’t improve your life. If you want to quit smoking, don’t hang out with smokers. If you don’t want to get angry, hang out with supportive, non-judgmental people.

Change your beliefs

Your environment doesn’t affect your emotional system directly. It affects it through your perceptions as influenced by your beliefs. Sometimes you can’t change your environment or don’t want to. Changing your beliefs will change how something in your environment will affect you.

For me, for example, learning how “food” companies like Kraft, Pepperidge Farm, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Tropicana, and other industrial “food” corporations process food has made their products unappetizing to me. I see them differently than I used to. You can put them in front of me and I don’t want them.

Many people have similar experiences learning about factory farming and meat.

Back to awareness

To close off, I want to return to awareness. Knowing how empathy gaps work, that they make sense given the human emotional system, and how a given one is acting on you enables you to look at your situation from an outside perspective, to some extent letting you escape the effect.

You’ll notice this strongly with others, especially when you plan with someone else, then implement in a different environment. If both of you experience and empathy gap buy your awareness and experience lets you transcend yours, you will be able to see how the effect acts on someone else — an eye-opening experience that will help you manage how empathy gaps affect you.

You’ll also learn a great skill in motivating others past where others can’t. Eventually you’ll be able to motivate yourself beyond where most others can, and feel more calm and comfortable in the process.

Tomorrow I’ll describe some examples.

One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 5: examples

[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.]

As a final note on empathy gaps, I wanted to note a few examples of empathy gaps — using them, observing them in others, and observing them in yourself.

Researchers normally present empathy gaps as problems. I like to think of them as a part of life like any other. We can use the effect to help us.

Teenager egg-carrying exercise

I remember a high school assignment for students to carry an egg with them everywhere for a week or a month. Eggs, of course, are fragile, so you have to take care of them. The goal is to get students who might think about having babies as teenagers to realize the incredible, non-stop, inescapable responsibility in raising a child.

Since teenagers’ exposure to the responsibility of raising a child is usually otherwise fleeting and involves doting and having fun, this exercise overcomes the empathy gap between teenagers’ common exposure to child-rearing and actual child-rearing.

Power corrupting

Woody Allen’s comedy movie Bananas involves a revolutionary leader overthrowing a dictator of a Latin American country. He wants to reform the government, but when the revolution succeeds and he finds himself in a position of power, he can’t stop himself from abusing the power.

While the movie is fictional and funny, we know the pattern. Someone outside a system wants to change it. What influenced others to comply with that system may influence them too if they haven’t prepared themselves for the empathy gap.

I use this fictional example for two reasons. First movie is funny. Second, in the scene where the revolutionary turns into a dictator, you can almost see the effect of the empathy gap as it hits him. YouTube has an excerpt of the silly scene. Sorry, but China’s government blocks YouTube so I can’t link to it, but you can find it easily enough. I’ll link to it when I get access to the rest of the web.

Using them to your advantage

Going to the gym

A friend once told me, “I usually spend an hour or two at the gym, but I never go to the gym to work out for an hour. I go to the gym just to walk in the door. Once I’m there, I figure I might as well do a full work out. If I planned to go for two hours, I never would.”

In other words, he uses empathy gaps to his advantage. At home he never feels like working out, but he knows once at the gym he’ll stay until he’s done. So he doesn’t think about how much time he’ll stay. He just gets himself in the front door.

He put into words what many of us do.

Starting an exercise set

I do the same thing with my twice-daily burpees (what’s a burpee?). Twenty is a lot of burpees to do. When I start each set, I only decide to do the first. Once started, I feel like finishing the rest, using an empathy gap to motivate 95% of my set and willpower for only the first 5%.

Starting skiing

It’s hard to leave a warm hotel room to go out in the cold, but I know once I start skiing I’ll love it. When I put my ski clothing on in the morning, I’m not even thinking about going out in the cold. I just do it to make it easier to get outside.

Once I do my first run of the day, I know I’ll ski until dark.

Again, I use willpower to get out the door, where I know an empathy gap with carry me through the rest of the day.

Avoiding food I don’t want to eat

Sometimes I don’t want to eat something unhealthy but I know it tastes good. If it’s near me, it’s hard not to think about it. Even if I could avoid eating it with just willpower, it’s distracting. I could use my mental efforts on something else.

As hard as it is to avoid eating it, if I move the food out of my environment, the temptation decreases or disappears.

Like many people, I use empathy gaps to remove temptation.

Getting rid of stuff

I wrote about effective practices I used to stop hoarding stuff and find freedom from simplifying my life, especially by decreasing my amount of material stuff in my post, “The 3 best tricks to get rid of things.”

Germans under Nazis

I just learned about the celebrated war correspondent Martha Gellhorn on my flight over, which had the movie Hemingway & Gellhorn.

Reading about her afterward, I read this passage she wrote in 1964 about Germans participating in Nazism. Today Nazism is synonymous with the worst monsters ever, but millions of people participated. Her quote reveals the empathy gap between people participating with the system and those outside it as well as the same people after the war ended. Could everyone participating all have been monsters?

The adults of Germany, who knew Nazism and in their millions cheered and adored Hitler until he started losing, have performed a nation-wide act of amnesia; no one individually had a thing to do with the Hitlerian regime and its horrors. The young realize this cannot be true, yet one by one, each explains how guiltless his father was; somebody else’s father must have been doing the dirty work. Santayana observed that if a man forgets his past he is condemned to relive it. Germans trained in obedience and dedicated to moral whitewashing are not a new people, nor are they reliable partners for anyone else.

If they were monsters, were they monsters before Hitler’s rise to power? If not, what changed them? If they weren’t monsters, how could they commit such monstrosities? To me these are among the most important questions on totalitarianism and even government. By the time the Nazis had power, stopping them was too late. So what circumstances led to motivating millions of people that way?

If the regular Joe’s of Germany in the 30s weren’t monsters, they were regular humans too. There seems to be a big empathy gap between ourselves and those living in Germany in the 1930s.

Getting old

Some young people freak out about getting old. People in their 20s are afraid that their lives won’t be worth living in their 50s. They can’t imagine what people at that age do, since older people can’t do what they consider worth doing.

They suffer from an empathy gap. They don’t understand the values of a 50-year-old.

The good news for them is that people in their 20s don’t turn into 50-year-olds. People in their 20s turn into people in their 30s and so on. Time forces them to overcome the empathy gap as their environments slowly change — mainly their peers age too.

Hard projects will be harder than you expect. How to prepare.

[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.]

A second post from the book Willpower

Leading yourself and others requires foreseeing that doing something hard feels harder, longer, more frustrating, and so on than you expect. At the beginning you say, “I’m strong, diligent, and capable. I’ll power through no matter what comes my way.” Intellectually anticipating it will be hard doesn’t and can’t prepare you for the emotional motivation to stop you’ll feel in the moment.

One of my main reasons for running marathons (as if being cheered on by millions of fans isn’t enough) is to reach the feeling where your mind and body want you to quit and still continue. Only experience can give it to you. If you can keep going up some hill in 90 degree weather at mile 20 of a training run, handling a difficult meeting or colleague at work becomes much easier.

A psychologist put a name to it: the hot-cold empathy gap. If you don’t anticipate it in yourself or your teams, you will be caught off guard. Preparing for it can be hard since your motivations will be different in the moment than now. You can’t conjure up emotions for environments, beliefs, and behaviors you aren’t in the middle of. Beforehand you can’t project how you’ll feel then. Then you won’t be able to break out of that frustration to the calmness you feel beforehand.

The book describes it in the context of nineteenth century explorer whose team’s behavior deteriorated catastrophically in the jungles.

Stanley was describing what the economist George Leowenstein calls the “hot-cold empathy gap”: the inability, during a cool, rational, peaceful moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during the heat of passion and temptation. At home in England, the men may have coolly intended to behave in a virtuous manner, but they couldn’t imagine how different their feelings would be in the jungle. The hot-cold empathy gap is still one of the most common challenges to self-control, albeit in less extreme versions…

In setting rules for how to behave in the future, you’re often in a calm, cool state, so you make unrealistic commitments. “It’s really easy to agree to diet when you’re not hungry.”

I consider this one case where almost nothing can substitute for experience. You don’t need experience in the area you’ll be working. You need experience with the emotions, which can come from other sources.

Incidentally, the book continues from that passage,

We’ve said that willpower is humans’ greatest strength, but the best strategy is not to rely on it in all situations. Save it for emergencies. As Stanley discovered, there are mental tricks that enable you to conserve willpower for those moments when it’s indispensable. Paradoxically, these techniques require willpower to implement, but in the long run they leave you less depleted for those moments when it takes a strong core to survive

I agree not using willpower helps. As my series on willpower points out, you can do better than mental tricks.

A model that explains why your enthusiasm when planning disappears when doing

[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” 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.]

Scene 1: You plan something big. You’re excited. You know there will be challenges, but you also know you’ll overcome them. You will do what it takes no matter what.

Scene 2: You started the project but it petered out. You don’t know what happened to that feeling of invincibility, but it’s gone.

What happened? How did you lose your motivation? Why didn’t your willpower work?

Today’s model answers.

A model that explains why your enthusiasm when planning disappears when doing : Your emotions react to what perceive in the moment. When the moment changes, your motivation changes.

When you’re planning, you’re comfortably thinking about what you could do, which isn’t the same as doing it. You’re also thinking about the great consequences. Thinking of doing the project takes moments and suddenly you’re thinking about the great results you’ll get.

Doing the project takes time and requires overcoming the challenges. The need for motivations kicks in then. But you’re in a different time and place, perceiving different things. Your motivations now are different than then.

Motivation comes from your perceptions of your world in the moment. Our ancestors evolved motivations to react to their world in the moment. If a lion starts chasing you now, you better run or hide now. Not a moment later.

Facing actual obstacles evokes actual discouragement you don’t feel when imagining obstacles.

Your emotions react to what perceive in the moment. When the moment changes, your motivation changes.

Psychologists call this effect “empathy gaps” and it’s a popular study now.

Empathy gap examples

  1. Trying to make a hot shower fast on a cold morning. Even if you were in a huge hurry to get to work on time before the shower, feeling that warm water will motivate you staying in that shower.
  2. Trying to eat healthy when surrounded by rich food. Whatever your diet plans, we evolved motivation to eat rich foods.
  3. Distance running. It’s easy before starting a ten-mile run to say you’ll run the whole way no matter what. By eight miles your motivations may change.
  4. Maintaining an exercise plan. When you plan to get in shape you feel relaxed. A rainy day exhausted from the office discourages you from going to the gym.
  5. Not getting angry. Before talking to someone who always pushes your buttons you can easily say you won’t take their bait. When they’re pressing your buttons you don’t think, “I’ll drop my plans.” You think “they need to learn a lesson and I’m the one to teach it.”
  6. Waking up quickly when tired. You might say before getting in bed, “I’ll wake up quickly tomorrow no matter what.” You wake up to different perception, so your motivation changes.


Overcoming empathy gaps isn’t easy. You don’t always realize your environment is changing so you can lose your motivation without realizing it, just thinking you’re behaving consistently with your environment.

One strategy is to know about the effect. When planning, remember how your environment will change when you’re trying to go to the gym after a long day at work. How will your willpower work then? What can you do to prepare for feeling discouraged?

Another strategy is to observe empathy gaps in others, where the effects are easier to see. Their change in emotion might not happen with you. Then you can better understand the effect.

Another strategy is to build on experience. When you sense your emotions have changed, note how the change feels. consider how you can prepare for it next time.

Also, build experience by creating empathy gaps and overcoming them. Marathon training helps me prepare for marathon-like obstacles because the motivation to climb a hill at twenty-miles is like the motivation to keep my patience with someone antagonizing me at work. Overcoming one prepares me for overcoming the other.

A big strategy is to change your environment. When you don’t feel like doing something you told yourself you wanted to before, simply changing your environment can change your motivations. Getting up off the couch, turning off the TV or computer, and changing into your workout clothes may do the trick.

Another big strategy is to change your beliefs. Your beliefs filter how you perceive your environment. My model for processed industrial food is that some major corporation is trying to deceive me to make money at the expense of my health. Whatever pleasure their products might give me, I don’t want to do business with people like that. I don’t even want to increase demand for their products. So I don’t eat them.

When I use this belief

I use this belief when planning something that will require motivation in a difference context than when I’m planning.

What this belief replaces

This belief replaces losing motivation in the middle of a big project with preparing for it and knowing you can do something about it.

Where this belief leads

This belief leads to foreseeing, preparing for, and handling emotional challenges more effectively.

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