Self-help: Isn’t it ironic?


Self-help advisor Gemma Rose’s best intentions bring about the opposite outcome.

“I’m very interested.” She stared at me intently, holding my gaze. A flush of both excitement and relief washed over me all at once.

“Are you sure you want it?” This woman was sending me all the right signals, but I was no fool: I’d been down that road before, only to be bitterly disappointed by the let-down.

“Yes. I want it as soon as possible.”

I had a good feeling about her. This was it. “That’s terrific. I’ll call the landlord right away.” I gushed.

I was elated. I had invested a lot of time and effort in advertising my flat. After many initial offers of interests and no-shows, I finally found someone to take it over. I could move out almost immediately.

Yet after that evening, I never heard from her again.

“Gawd, it’s just like dating a woman,” my friend told me matter-of-factly the next day.

“What?” I asked, confused.

“Think about it,” he replied. “You went through all the stages. First, she comes over all hot and heavy, giving you the signs. Then you get all excited and go into high-energy mode by ringing your landlord, telling him you found the perfect tenant. You then call her, pressuring her into meeting your landlord as soon as possible. Stage three: you over-analyse and contact her again, this time trying to sell her your furniture even though you never intended to. Later, you panic, thinking that you’ve ruined your chances because you’ve pressured her. And all day today you’ve been on edge, waiting for her call: stage five.”

“She’s gone.” He concluded.

I stared at him with resignation.

“Stage six: depression.”

He was right, it was like waiting to hear back for that second date, that I was so sure was going to come. Yet it didn’t. I was left hanging and instead of just letting him go, I was so desperate to avoid the worst that I would chase him up with an email, or text, or – when I’ve hit rock bottom – a call. But he was gone.

There is a psychological basis to these actions which cause perverse outcomes. I had fallen under the spell of ironic errors. Ironic errors occur when you do the exact opposite of what you intended to do. For example, why is it that when we are consciously and carefully trying not to spill something, we spill it anyway? Or when we are trying to avoid a topic of conversation, we end up mentioning it?

I came across the theory of ironic process or as Sigmund Freud described it, the “counter will” in the Science Magazine article How to Think, Say or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion by Daniel M. Wegner of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He writes about the fact then when we are under pressure or “mental load” and we are trying to suppress or ignore a thought or action, we are more likely to end up expressing or doing it. Normally this happens when we try to be socially desirable. For example, when respondents were asked not to think about an ex, they showed greater attachment or “psychophysiological” arousal to that ex than those that were allowed to think about their exes. It can also happen when we want to be seen as fair and impartial. I wonder if the former UK Prime Minster Gordon Brown fell victim to such ironic effects during his election campaign, which is undoubtedly stressful. After respectfully exchanging views with a Labour supporter on immigration, he blurted out in the car that she was a “bigoted woman” when his microphone was still on. As Wegner notes, “the desire to be fair and unprejudiced, exercised in haste or distraction, can engender surprising levels of bias and prejudice.”

By trying to find a new tenant under a time pressure that I had inadvertently set myself, I was attempting to achieve a self-imposed goal, which, according to Wegner, is another scenario that can be affected by ironic effects.

Thankfully, Wegner assures us that ironic effects don’t happen too often and mostly when we are stressed or distracted. He mentions a couple of strategies to reduce their severity such as accepting things rather than trying to control them, or talking openly rather than being secretive.

Looking back, I should have played it cool with the prospective tenant and not have tried to force the outcome. If I had done so, perhaps she would have been the one. But just as the no-second date guy flaked out on me, I went on to meet a wonderful man. So maybe a better fate has met my old flat too?