Generally speaking, most people think they are better than average. They think they have lower health risks than others, are better than average drivers and are more likely to be the exception than the norm. This bias is sometimes called ‘unrealistic optimism’. It runs through people’s attitudes and behaviours – from their relationships, politics and spending behaviour to the way they generally live their lives.
Many of us also live in another fantasy world that causes more harm. It’s a world where what we say does not match what we do. Where our knowledge, memories, intentions, expectations and behaviours are at odds with each other. I call this fantasy world ‘Incoherence’. Living in this fantasy world – where the facts about us just do not add up – is at the basis of many poor relationships, of stress, of continual disappointments and conflict.
Have you, for example,
1. Looked forward to something (a holiday, a date) but found the reality nothing like you’d imagined?
2. Been excited about buying something but regretted it later?
3. Set yourself a goal but done little to bring it about?
4. Wished a personal relationship could be better, but wanted others to change to make it so?
5. Said you really want something (perhaps a good relationship or a better job) but not followed through?
6. Started on a ‘change project’ (to lose weight, drink less alcohol, or made a New Year’s Resolution) but given up almost as soon as you started?
These are examples of fantasies caused by personal incoherence. They are common but they can be avoided. The answer though doesn’t lie in harnessing your willpower resources. It lies in developing your own personal coherence.
Here are the four main types of Incoherence Fantasy:
• The pretend-only fantasy. This happens when you are not really 100% committed to a goal, decision or behaviour that is necessary to obtain the optimal outcome. The spoken words are empty and devoid of action potential. In this fantasy, the incoherence gets compounded and makes the positive outcome less and less likely to happen (see previous blog: ‘Living a Lie’)
• The commitment-without-expectation fantasy. Here, you might show all the signs of being fully committed, but deep down you don’t really expect to succeed. This fantasy perpetuates failure too. The low expectations are usually met because of the fantasy.
• The hidden effort fantasy. A very common cause type of incoherence. It is the failure to fully consider the actual effort required to reach a goal or to take account of all the consequences of the change decision you make. Many people will ‘fully’ commit to a goal but fail to consider the unseen costs and effort hidden in the decision. So you may set a goal, but not be facing up to all that’s needed to achieve it.
• The others’ effort fantasy. This is a tendency to rely on others to make your change happen. It is when your desired goal is contingent upon other people’s actions. This fantasy is very common with people who have low levels of self-responsibility. It’s also seen a lot in people who have poor relationships, and in those who use their intellect, position or power over others.
Can you work out which of the fantasy categories above relate to the earlier numbered list of examples of common situations? (answers below*)
Is it time to think about what fantasies you have?
Fantasies are usually the mark of a lack of personal incoherence and often manifest themselves in poor decisions. These arise because of:
1. Emotions. Emotions cloud logic and judgements. Reasoning powers seem to go out of the window for some people when the subject matter or conclusions involve emotionally laden outcomes. Emotions can also account for many of the flaws in thinking and reasoning that humans show.
2. Habit. Inertia predisposes us to make the same choices we have made before instead of questioning these choices. We often have a stock of excuses to justify our decisions and behaviours.
3. Low levels of self responsibility, fearlessness, balance, conscience or awareness means we are more likely to be distracted by the wrong options.
4. A narrow behavioural repertoire – or not being able to flex - means we will be insufficiently flexible and lack essential behaviours.
5. Worrying about doing the right thing. Being over-concerned about the reaction of others, or the ramifications a decision may have in other areas of life, can cloud judgment and make for poor choices.
In our work on behavioural change the goal is always to help people become more coherent in their quest for a happier and more satisfying life. When people manage to achieve this, fantasies turn to realities. Without doing something different, however, effecting this transformation is futile for many people most of the time.
I will consider the elements and different levels of coherence in a later blog. To have a strong measure of personal coherence it is important to know yourself at all levels – both your experiencing (in the moment) self and your reflecting self (see my earlier blog).
* Answers to quiz (the answers will depend on the circumstances and the individual, but these are the most common):
1= Hidden Effort Fantasy or Pretend Only
2= Pretend Only Fantasy
3= Hidden Effort Fantasy
4= Others’ Effort Fantasy
5= Pretend Only Fantasy
6= Commitment-Without-Expectation Fantasy or Hidden-Effort Fantasy