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Getting Real: Warning Signs of False Hope Syndrome

How to hack it if you have it—and help others get real.

Key points

  • False hope syndrome involves repeatedly believing in unrealistic expectations.
  • Feeling you can do something even if it is unrealistic can feel optimistic and empowering.
  • Overconfidence happens from feeling you have control, and the problems begin when you realize you don't.

What happens when a positive emotion, like hope, gets out of hand? Hope is believing that a positive future outcome is possible combined with a desire for that outcome. But what if the belief about what is possible is at odds with reality? What happens when the desire for an outcome generates unrealistic expectations?

Nowhere is this more noticeable than with persistent self-change efforts in the face of repeated failures. Here is where the expectation of what and how fast something can happen can be repeatedly distorted. The ad that promises fantastic weight loss in days, the investment opportunity that promises you’ll double your money, and the new body you’ll have in hours with this new workout routine all fuel the fantasy. With little effort, you can get what you want quickly and painlessly.

When we launch into these efforts, there is a feeling of control and optimism, and we easily become overconfident. However, because these efforts are built on the sand foundation of unrealistic expectations, it isn’t long before we have distress and eventual failure. Then it happens again—a distorted belief that, despite evidence from past efforts to the contrary, this time will be different. What is delusory is the amount of effort, speed, change, and degree of helpfulness our goal will yield. These distortions can wangle their way into our consciousness and cause us to act and fail repeatedly. We get stuck—caught in the convoluted world of false hope syndrome (FHS).

Aligning With More Realistic Goals

But there are fast, easy, and painless ways to get immediate results (only kidding). But, actually, the correction to FHS is relatively straightforward. Learning what is feasible and impossible begins by recognizing a pattern of believing something unattainable is within reach. It requires you to remember this familiar feeling and thought pattern—along with the memory of failure in the past. This is essential to implementing changes. Once you know you are in the false hope loop, three things can help you align with more realistic goals.

  1. Whatever your goal is—losing weight, getting a degree, saving money, building muscle, etc.— look up the average amount of time and effort people invest—and results they achieve. The fantasy that you are different from the average is the first clue the stealthy false hope syndrome has infected your thinking. Statistically speaking, the overwhelming chances are that you will fall on one side or the other on average. The progress you make when targeting the average can then help motivate you to stay the course. If the average amount of weight loss per week on all types of diets is two pounds, then that is the measure to use—not your fantasy amount. Not making this early adjustment is one of the biggest problems with dieting.
  2. Use micro-goals to increase motivation and progress. Micro-goals are ways to facilitate hope. (You can learn more about using micro-goals in Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression.) They do this by helping you focus your attention on an achievable goal within a very short time frame and keep you engaged while making progress. Again, to use dieting as an example, drinking a liter of water in a half hour, taking 20 minutes to eat your salad (not scarfing it down in five), and planning to take a 10-minute walk during lunch are all micro-goals that keep you focused while allowing feelings of accomplishment along the way.
  3. Setting realistic long-term and micro-goals is important, but no more important than reappraising them frequently. Regularly adjusting your strategy, timeline, and approach is part of remaining resilient toward your goal. In fact, having a flexible mindset is at the very core of what makes people resilient.

False Hope Syndrome in Others

These are recommendations you can use to manage your own FHS, but what do you do if someone you care about, or a coworker or perhaps boss, seems to be caught in the loop? The key here is to help them come into conflict with their own thinking—not with you.

If you try to convince someone they have false hope, they’ll usually dig in their heels. But pointing out contradictions and conflicts with their point of view along with examples of their own healthy goal setting can help them come into doubt about their thinking—which is the goal.

Say a friend of yours wants to go back to college. They tell you that they are sure they are in a better place now than before they dropped out, and they want to catch up. They want to sign up for 18 credits for the semester to make up for lost time. You know this is unrealistic for them, but they are convinced they have the skills and drive to get it done and that they have learned to speed read, and this will be easy. What do you do?

  1. Acknowledge the enthusiasm. The first step is to let them know you can see how excited they are about going back to school. You don’t want to dampen their eagerness—you want to help them channel it. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
  2. Point out contradictions or conflicts with the plan. As mentioned, you want the person to come into conflict with themselves—not with you. You might point out that the last time they attempted 18 credits was when they had to drop out. You could remind them that they have a trip planned during which they will be away for two weeks in the middle of the semester. You might also mention they just started a new full-time job that requires them to be there 35 hours a week. FHS has the ability to put blinders on a person. You can gently help your friend remove them.
  3. Point out past successes that used alternate approaches. Remind your friend that when they took six credits, they aced both courses. That when they took nine credits and cut back their work hours to part-time, they made the dean’s list. Using examples from their own history of success helps them challenge their way of thinking about the current situation.

When one comes into conflict with their own way of thinking, they mature emotionally and intellectually. It is how true wisdom develops and what makes way for realistic optimism and hope.

References

Luo, S. X., Van Horen, F., Millet, K., & Zeelenberg, M. (2020). What we talk about when we talk about hope: A prototype analysis. Emotion.

Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (2000). The false-hope syndrome: Unfulfilled expectations of self-change. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(4), 128-131.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/health-and-human-nature/202103/…

Tomasulo, D. (2020). Learned hopefulness: The power of positivity to overcome depression. New Harbinger Publications.

Bonanno, G. A. (2021). The end of trauma: How the new science of resilience changes how we think about PTSD (1st ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.

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