’If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans’ — so runs the famous saying. Indeed, from time to time, even the most carefully conceived ideas come to nothing in the face of unforeseen circumstances. On other occassions, people give up on their plans of their own accord. It turns out that this facet of human behaviour has been contemplated by various researchers over the past century.
It seems perfectly logical that, once we’ve laid down plans for something important (buying a new car or house, going on holiday, getting married, starting a business), we should tell our friends and family — that way they can either support us or just be happy for us in the way that we would wish. However, already in 1933, psychologists discovered that the more people we reveal our intentions to, the smaller the likelihood is that we’ll actually manage to realise them.
So what’s going on here? The problem is that if we reveal all about our plans ahead of their realisation, they end up being interpreted as an already completed deed in our subconscious mind. And if our goals are already seen subconsciously as having been achieved, then — as you might expect — our motivation to actually achieve them begins to dissipate.
Peter Gollwitzer, Professor of Psychology at New York University, touched on this subject in his 1982 book, Symbolic Self-Completion. He carried out a series of experiments involving 63 people. His results showed that people who didn’t reveal their plans to others were far more likely to fulfil them compared to others who openly discussed them in pursuit of the approval and support of those around them.
Professor Gollwitzer believes that revealing our plans to others gives us a ’premature sense of completion’. In our minds, we have what psychologists refer to as identity symbols, which help us to create an understanding of our own selves. Even by simply discussing what we plan to do, and not just the action itself, we create these symbols. Lets say you told everyone you know about your intention to write a PhD thesis. You would logically then begin to create an image in your mind of yourself as an academic. Your mind is satisfied with this image — and in turn, the psychological stimulus which would otherwise push you to take action to make this image a reality (such as preparing a research project, looking for a supervisor, or doing background research in the library) disappears.