Tuesday, July 21, 2009

When You Keep Making the Same Mistake

How does it happen that people keep making the same mistake? They know it's a mistake; they tell themselves not to do it; and the more they insist the more they keep doing it.

Freud called it repetition compulsion. A few centuries earlier people called it demonic possession. A pitching coach described it as being controlled by the Creature.

When you fall prey to the Creature it feels like an alien being has taken over your mind. However much you want to do the right thing, however much you have to gain by getting it right, you keep getting it wrong.

Here I am not talking about a complex or difficult action. I am not talking about the man who is always falling in love with Ms. Wrong.

I am referring to a professional golfer who keeps missing tap-ins. Or a second baseman who cannot throw the ball accurately to first base.
Links here and here.

The golfer has sunk thousands of tap-ins. He doesn't even think about it. And then one day, he misses a tap-in, loses a tournament... and from that moment on, an eight inch putt might as well be eight miles.

In my view we are beyond bad habits. We are not talking about the golfer's version of biting your nails. These mistakes are not just inconvenient or improper; they can and do sink careers.

Most of us are not professional athletes. We do not all relate well to these situations.

So, consider the case of the person who is always late for appointments. He keeps telling himself that he must be on time. And yet, every time he has an important meeting something comes up, something happens, he is delayed, and he is late.

You might think that this is too trite to matter. And yet, if you cannot get the little things right, no one is going to entrust you with anything larger. When you keep people waiting, you disrespect them. As everyone knows, when you are going for a job interview, you should never, never keep them waiting.

What we really want to know is: how can you overcome such a compulsion to err? Does modern psychology have something to offer that is better than exorcism?

Let us stipulate that you are not going to solve the problem by discovering its root cause, the moment in time when it started. The golfer who keeps missing short putts knows very well when it started. This has no effect on his aptitude for adding unnecessary strokes to his game.

Nor are you going to resolve it by making it part of a pattern. When you start thinking that you always make mistakes, you will have defined yourself as error-prone. At that point, getting things right will feel like an alien experience.

In one of the New York Times articles linked above, pitching coach and psychologist Tom House declared clearly: "talk therapy or persuasion will never solve the problem."

Psychological research has shown that people who think about how important it is to get it right will, because they are thinking about the problem, be more likely to get it wrong.

Psychologists have observed that when someone is told not to think about polar bears, he will find it nearly impossible not to think about polar bears. The more he tries to suppress thoughts of polar bears the more their image will be intruding into his consciousness.

You are not going to overcome your compulsion by thinking it to death. You cannot banish it from your thoughts by trying not to think about it. And once the mistake becomes hyper-present in your mind, you will be far more likely to keep making it.

In the old days they would have said that you cannot reason with a demon; you cannot argue with it or persuade it; you cannot simply wish it away.

Call it the Creature, of the imp of the perverse, or a demon... it does not respond to open and honest conversation.

The solution, as Coach/Psychologist House suggests is "performance, not counseling."

When a football player fumbles the ball, his coach will always want to get the ball back in his hands at the first opportunity. Only the performance can counteract the impression left by the fumble. Only the performance of the task can overcome the trauma, by relegating it to insignificance.

The sooner the player gets his hands on the ball, the less time he will have to mull it over, to think about what happened, to work it over in his mind.

The more time he spends thinking about it, the more it will become part of his identity. At that point, he will surely feel that his mind has been hijacked by an otherworldly Creature.


Johnny said...

Hey thanks. This article was really helpful.

Anonymous said...


i've been thinking about it for 7 years fukkkkkk