False hope syndrome

If you find yourself behaving in much the same manner at this time of year as you did the one before, and the year before that, and the year before that… there’s a name for that… the false hope syndrome.

If you’ve failed miserably while attempting the same goals, year in and year out, and you’re still hell-bent on setting self-change resolutions again this year, you could be existing in hamster wheel mode (i.e. a cycle of failure).

Persistency through failure can be a good thing if expectations are realistic.

In the case of false hope syndrome, key factors are:

  • Speed (how quickly can a goal be achieved)
  • Ease (how comfortably can a goal be achieved)
  • Amount (how much time is required, or the degree of change - e.g. how much weight to lose is the target)
  • Consequence (or benefits).

If these expectations are set at unrealistic levels, self-change attempts are often ‘programmed’ for failure. (1) 

Interpretation of failure has a lot to do with a person’s level of persistency (i.e. returning to the goal for another attempt). At some point odds were overwhelming enough to derail the entire goal process, but it could very well be that along the way, there were some rewards. This may have brought with it feelings of optimism and a sense of control that is strong enough to make a person feel capable, even if the end result was never achieved.

The cycle shifts between positive (confidence or even over-confidence) and negative (failure, low self-worth and discouragement), both of which have a psychological consequence. Desires may also remain such as… we can be better, more attractive, more successful, or popular if we can just achieve that one niggly thing, like losing a heck of a lot of weight.

In our minds, it may be doable. It is achievable. “I did lose a few kilos during the first few months of last year. People did notice, and I started to feel better about myself…” So, we return, at resolution time, and vow to make it work this new year. The trouble with little rewards, is that sometimes, these achievements are only really acknowledged in retrospect, as the ‘in-the-moment’ feeling wasn’t as instantly gratifying as we wanted it to be… Why? Perhaps because the focus is on the end goal and not the process (e.g. 2 kilos worth of weight loss is not 10 kg’s).

We all inherently crave appreciation, admiration, success and a feeling of being in control. If we can alter some aspect of ourselves, the benefits achieved will be secondary to the change we are able to make. It’s human nature to like the idea that self-change will bring about what we desire. If we believe so, we are fully capable of achieving our goals. If we are capable, then we can change ourselves, and there will be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The consequence will be the benefits we seek.

Year end is a time when most are full of cheer and focussed on the more pleasant aspects of life. We may forget about the stones that tripped us up – the days when the process became boring and unsatisfying, or when real obstacles like difficulty overwhelmed our willpower. The days of relapses which, when added up, eventually prompted us to neatly wrap up our goals in a little box and place it in a drawer for another day, may not be top of mind.

Over-inflated expectations and over-confidence are often central to false hope syndrome. Being unrealistic can break any goal, no matter how grand or small it is. A goal may begin with high hopes (i.e. false hope), but unrealistic expectations relating to the outcome can easily chip away at it. Once odds begin chipping away, hopes get dashed and distorted expectations will lose their shine. The result is discouragement and disappointment, and a perception of oneself as a failure.

To make a successful change, our skills must match our goals in a realistic way. In our skill set lies capability. Our capabilities are there and enable us to achieve through the goal process. In false hope lies failure. 


1. International Journal of Obesity. 2001. The false hope syndrome: unrealistic expectations of self-change: https://www.nature.com/articles/0801705.pdf?origin=publication_detail [Accessed 13.12.2017]

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