The XX Factor

Put “The Triumph of Optimism Over Experience” on My Gravestone. Yours?

The British Psychological Society just posed a question to leading psychologists: Even with all your expertise, what’s the one nagging thing you still don’t understand about yourself? The best answers out the experts for falling into the very human traps they write about so often. If you’re an avid reader of the psycho-literary self-help book, what’s the one thing you do even though you know why you do it (and why you shouldn’t)?

Of all the psychologists responding, David Buss nailed it best, although in fancier language. Why, he asked, if I know people are prone to certain mistakes, do I still make them myself? His personal bugaboos include expecting long-term happiness from short-term accomplishments, underestimating the amount of time he takes to finish things and (my favorite) “misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest.” Robert Cialdini overcommits. Paul Rozin never learns from experience. David Lavallee indulges in lucky charms and rituals. They’ve spent years of their lives studying the way people behave under the influence of their various mental ticks-and yet they can’t control their own.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a little self-help nestled snugly in a bed of easily digestible psychology, so I’m a sucker for books like Stumbling on Happiness and Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think . I know that things that will make my present self happy will anger my future self, and that I’ll eat more food off of a bigger plate. I like to fancy that all that reading has given me special insight into the one nagging thing I can’t fix about myself: I know that I will, at any opportunity, let optimism triumph over experience. Of course I can get it to you by 3 p.m.; we’d love to bring our four kids to the opening of your glass-blown sculpture show; why not get another dog?

It falls to a nameless colleague of Elizabeth Loftus ’ to remind us that-of course-there’s a psychological explanation for why we repeat behaviors that we claim to know aren’t working: somehow, some part of us benefits. Her anxiety dreams, someone suggests, persist because she so loves the feeling of waking up and realizing that she won’t miss a plane or a meeting. David Buss enjoys his expectations. David Lavallee rests secure in the knowledge that at least he’s done all he could to make that putt.

Does the rush of making that optimistic promise and the thrill of anticipating its fulfillment outweigh the stress of, say, housetraining the resulting puppy? Apparently. I admit it-I’m secretly kind of proud of my supposed failing. Will knowing that help me say no to coaching my daughter’s hockey team again this year? Probably not.

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