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Oh yes, you can; oh no, you don’t have to

How often do you say “I’m sorry but I can’t…” or “I really have to…” — and is that really the case?

Think about it: it is overwhelmingly likely that you are talking nonsense almost every time you do. When you say “I can’t”, you’re not really physically incapable of whatever you’re claiming you are unable to do, and when you have to, there is generally no natural law that you cannot resist.

Yet we resort to such phraseology all the time. A friend invites us out but we don’t feel like it? We can’t come, because of a ‘prior engagement’ (such as washing our hair). Late home for dinner? Sorry, but we could not leave that meeting that overran. Kids want me to go footballing in the park? Nope, we must mow the lawn. Why we were driving over the speed limit, officer? We had to get to the station in time.

And it’s not that is actually necessary to say it out loud to someone else — we believe that we have to get up in the morning, we think can’t have breakfast because it’s too damn early, we must tidy the house (because we expect our nit picking in-laws), we can’t donate money to charity because we must save for a new sofa, or we can’t let the phone just ring out in the middle of a meal.

This idea of obligation has even nestled itself comfortably into our everyday vernacular. Idioms like “I must be off” perfectly embody that some larger force is compelling us to leave (and not before time either), rather than that we are choosing to leave someone’s boring company.

Why do we pretend?

Almost every time we use these phrases we really do have a choice. Of course we can choose between the prior engagement and going out with our friend; of course we could have opted to walk out of the meeting to get home in time, or we could postpone mowing the lawn until later — a couple of millimetres more won’t make much difference. Of course we could have chosen to leave earlier to catch our train or caught the next one, or to stay in bed on a work day (and call in sick or just take a day off); of course we could choose to get up 10 minutes earlier and get a proper breakfast, leave the house untidy and tell the in-laws where to get off if they have any criticism, we could choose to buy a cheaper sofa and donate some money, or we could just ignore the ringing phone.

So how come we pretend there is some higher force that dictates our actions?

One reason is that it protects us from cognitive dissonance. If we assert that we have no choice, we cannot possibly blame ourselves for having made the wrong one, any more than we can blame ourselves for the physiological processes that make our stomach gurgle, or for an act of God that made a tree blow over on our conservatory. But creating this world in which we are at the mercy of forces beyond our own control turns us into victims of our circumstances. In its more extreme forms, such a sense of powerlessness leads to stress, anxiety and depression.

Another reason is that it pre-empts challenges from others: if we have no choice, they’re not supposed to quiz us on why we’re doing what we’re doing, or to probe whether there is any way we could circumvent our constraints. That may feel like a waterproof defence, but naturally it is only as strong as their willingness to accept our perspective.

Stop fooling yourself and stop fooling others

Perhaps others actually see our excuses for the pitiful fig leaf they are: a lame attempt at hiding our embarrassment for not being honest about the real choice we make. Maybe they are just too polite to point it out. We may be fooling ourselves, but are we really fooling everyone else? Wouldn’t it be better if instead we considered such situations as the trade-offs they really are?

We would confront ourselves with explicitly weighing up the pros and cons of both the original passive choice and the active alternative. That doesn’t mean we’d necessarily come to a different conclusion (although it is very well possible that we find that walking out of a tedious meeting after it’s been overrunning for more than half an hour is actually the better option, or that the benefits of breakfast before leaving for work outweigh 10 minutes snoozing, or that ignoring a ringing phone and continuing our meal is deeply liberating). But it does mean that we make deliberate, conscious choices.

It also means that we are more honest and that we take responsibility for our decisions — towards others and, perhaps even more importantly, towards ourselves.

How about that then as a New Year’s resolution? Let’s resist the temptation to fool ourselves, give up the lame excuses and look the trade-offs life throws at us straight in the eye. Happy New Year!

Originally published at on December 30, 2016.

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Written by

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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