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Fear of pain or failure can be completely debilitating to some people – sometimes even greater than when they actually encounter the pain or failure itself. In a recent study highlighted by the British Psychological Society, Wilco van Dijk and his team conducted an experiment to trigger guilt and shame in 52 students in a planned event. They were to give the subjects a maths test where they would share a cash prize with a partner if they did well but then give nothing to either of them if one of them didn’t do well.

The students were asked to forecast how they would feel in the event of an exam failure and they were the cause of their partner not receiving any money. Then when told they all failed the exam (so no money to anyone), they were asked share their feelings after.

What the study found was that the level of guilt and shame they originally forecast was actually GREATER than their actual guilt or shame when the event did materialise. Dijk and his team observed that after the event occurred, people would employ various ways to manage and reduce the emotional intensity of these feelings of guilt and shame (e.g saying to themselves “it wasn’t important”).

This is called an”intensity bias” (or sometimes called impact bias), where you overestimate the impact of your feelings to a negative event due to you underestimating your own ability to manage your emotions when the negative event actually occurs.

This bias is not necessarily a “bad” thing but could actually be used to help push us into achieving our self-improvement goals or outcomes in two ways:

  1. Manipulate our intensity bias of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure to help drive us
  2. Actual failure is not going to be as bad as we first feared

In fact, we would go one step further: actual failure is a necessity to success so there is no reason to fear it at all.

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