Powerless if You Think You Are
Embracing the Enemy
Besides making us feel more powerful, scapegoating can harness our instincts to resist threats to our freedom and autonomy, a phenomenon that psychologists call “reactance.” For example, when your boss micromanages you and tells you what to do in a patronizing way, you may feel crummy and decide to do the opposite, to “stick it to the man.” Scapegoating uses the power of reactance toward productive ends. If we feel that someone or something is conspiring against us, we’re more likely to work harder to prove them wrong.
Eliciting reactance has been used successfully in public health efforts, such as the antismoking Truth campaign, which tried to appeal to rebellious high schoolers (who feel reactance toward just about everyone). Instead of showcasing far-off consequences like emphysema and black lungs, the Truth campaign did away with the gore and instead painted the tobacco industry as a bunch of scheming jerks. In one ad activists attempt to deliver a case marked “lie detector” to the headquarters of a tobacco company and are promptly kicked out. In another spot, cartoon characters interrupt smokers at a party by shouting “It’s a trap!”
We can apply the same methods to use careful scapegoating to increase our own motivation. If we imagine a force working against us, we’re more likely to get fired up, resist our temptations, and work harder to achieve our goals.
Of course, it’s actually just us against ourselves. But for the times when we don’t want to admit that, providing a clear enemy to rebel against — a “they” who doesn’t want you to leave that extra cookie on the plate or get back to writing that blog post — can help us summon the tenacity we need to succeed. Even if, in reality, that “they” resides in each of us.
Here’s the gist:
- If used correctly, scapegoating can be a powerful tool for resisting temptation and sticking to hard goals. It can also be dangerous and backfire if used incorrectly.
- Assigning blame is a kind of psychological defense mechanism that frees us from uncomfortable feelings when bad things happen out of our control, or when we don’t want to accept that we are responsible for our own problems.
- Nothing can be done when bad things happen as a result of circumstances truly beyond our control. But we’re often more powerful than we think we are when it comes to our own behavior. Studies have found that people who believe that temptations control them are much more likely to give in.
- As long as we target the behavior at the root of the problem, creating an imaginary enemy — projecting our struggle onto the scapegoat — can make us feel more powerful and help us resist temptation or achieve our goals.
Becoming indistractable requires an understanding of why you lose focus and learning the skills to do as you say. Establishing healthy habits, breaking out of your unproductive routines, and making time for what matters help you stay focused. By learning not to complain, scheduling indulgences, and understanding your internal triggers, you can harness the power to stay focused.
What do you think?
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