The Science Behind Our Self-Defeating Behavior

Why do we keep setting ourselves up for failure? It may be because we don’t recognize the limitations of the human mind.

The Science Behind Our Self-Defeating Behavior
[Image: Flickr user Magdalena Roeseler]

Ever set a goal only to abandon it a few days later? New Year’s resolutions are a good example. While 45% of us usually make one, only 8% of us are successful at keeping it, according to research from the University of Scranton.


So why do we keep setting ourselves up for failure? Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan, says it’s because we don’t anticipate the different sets of forces that constantly influence us and our decisions.

“To avoid getting sidetracked, you need to recognize the limitations of the human mind, and acknowledge the forces from within ourselves, the forces from our relationships and the forces from the outside,” says Gino.

While each set can be quite powerful–influencing us to make choices that are different than what we had planned–Gino says there are things we can do to stay on track. And it starts with understanding.

The Forces from Within

The first set of forces that can impact your decisions comes from inside your own mind and heart, says Gino, and often it stems from an inaccurate self-view. She gives the example of the 1997 survey conducted by U.S. News and World Report that asked 1,000 Americans who they thought would likely get into heaven. Seventy-nine percent believed Mother Teresa would get in, but surprisingly, the respondents gave themselves an 87% chance of getting into heaven–they felt they had a better chance than Mother Teresa.

“I’m always surprised when I think of this,” says Gino, “but a large body of research suggests that most of us think too highly of our skills and abilities.”

Our own self-concept is important, we like to see ourselves in a positive light, and we want others to see us that way, too, she says. But having inflated beliefs can lead to problems. For instance, Gino cites an interview with Gary Heavin, founder and former CEO of the U.S. fitness chain Curves International. By the age of 30, Heavin had launched a chain of gyms in Houston, filing for bankruptcy only a few years later. Learning from his failure, he later partnered with his wife, Diane, to found Curves International, a successful Texas-based fitness franchise for women.


“When reflecting on his first CEO job, Heavin noted that he used the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ too often and the words ‘us’ and ‘we’ not often enough,” Gino says. “He placed too much confidence in himself and too much responsibility on his own shoulders.”

To tackle the forces from within, Gino says we need to be aware of how inflated our self-perception can be. “We should posit and edit when we make decisions to make sure inflated self-views aren’t making us too overconfident and unable to listen to the views of others,” she says.

The Forces from Relationships

Relationships can also lead us to make bad choices, especially when we make social comparisons, says Gino. She points to the common tendency we have to evaluate ourselves by looking at others: “We often rate our skills as a good leader or decision maker by comparing our actions with those of peers or colleagues,” she says. “When the comparison is unfavorable, we are likely to experience distress, jealousy, or envy. This can lead us to somewhat dysfunctional behaviors and send our plans off course.”

Gino says to combat this force, it’s important to check your reference points before making a decision. Could you be driven by the fact that you are feeling unhappy because of where you stand in comparison to others? Make sure that your choices are the result of your own preferences and not how you compare yourself to others.

The Forces from Outside

Finally, forces from the outside can impact our decision-making process. These come from things like irrelevant information, subtle changes in framing, ambiance, and opportunity.

“We often seem to have most trouble accepting the influence of the situation,” says Gino. “We think we have control over our decision. In fact, even the subtlest of factors can sway the way we behave or choose.”


Gino and her colleagues tested the impact a subtle change can make when it comes to honesty. In an experiment with an insurance company, she asked customers to report the amount of miles they drove the prior year; higher numbers would translate into higher premiums. For half of the customers in the study, Gino provided them with a form that asked them to sign their name at the top of the document before filling in the requested information. The other half signed traditional forms, completing the information first and then signing their name at the bottom.

The customers who were given the forms that required them to sign their name at the top reported an average of 2,400 more miles than those who signed the traditional form, “hinting at what is possible with just a simple nudge to be ethical,” says Gino.

In follow-up studies, she found that signing the form at the top highlighted the person’s identity and increased the likelihood that they would live up to ethical standards.

Outside forces can be the most difficult to tackle because we often don’t know they’re happening, says Gino. As a result, it’s important to identify personal standards: “Our moral compass often fails us under the influence of subtle situational forces,” she says. “Finding ways to make our standards shine should help us stay on track.”