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The Hot-Cold Empathy Gap - Getting Around it to Reach Your Goals

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The Hot-Cold Empathy Gap - Getting Around it to Reach Your Goals

Scott Miker

I recently read about an psychologist named George Loewenstein.  He coined the term hot-cold empathy gap.  The hot-cold empathy gap can provide great insight into why we tend to miss our goals.  

The hot-cold empathy gap is a bias in our perspective based on our emotional state.  We tend to underestimate the influence of emotional drives and overestimate the influence of intellectual drives on our behavior.  In other words, if we are in a situation where our emotions are driving our behavior, we tend to assume our behavior is due to a conscious decision that we make and do not fully realize the effect emotion has on us.

As interesting as his work is, there are some great lessons that we can take from his work to help us in reaching our goals.  Let us first expand on the hot and cold analogy.  When we decide to get healthy we may decide to avoid cheeseburgers.  The cold aspect of this decision can be made after we just ate and are not feeling hungry.  The hot portion of this decision is in the moment we enter a burger restaurant when we are hungry.  In that instance, we will find it much more difficult to stay committed to that goal than when we set it because we are in the crucial moment when we have to make the decision and the decision is one that is partially driven by our emotions.  

Another example is a popular scene from the TV show Friends.  Rachel decides to stop relying on her father’s credit cards and cut them up.  If she waited until she was at the checkout counter about to purchase a new pair of shoes she would be in a hot state and it would be even more difficult.  Instead she chooses to cut them up away from the store (in a colder state).  

We tend to make resolutions in a cold state on New Years Eve.  But then we find it much more difficult to stick with our new plan for exercising in the morning when we wake up and are still exhausted.  Or we decide to quit smoking but find that when the cravings really kick in it is much more difficult than we imagined.

Here are three lessons that we can learn from the research of George Loewenstein and his research on hot and cold states.  Whatever goal we are striving to achieve, we have to be aware of this difference in perspective based on whether we are in a hot state or a cold state. 

1. Set goals in a cold state but address the hot state and how you will overcome that situation.

First, when you decide to set goals you will likely find yourself in a cold state.  That doesn’t mean that you will remain there so plan ahead.  Make sure you have a plan in place for those hot moments when it is extremely difficult to stick with it.  

If you are exercising in the mornings (hot state) make sure you get everything ready the night before (cold state).  If you are avoiding junk food make sure you have healthy alternatives.  If you are starting to budget your money, create the budget and only take the cash that you intend to use with you to avoid over-buying.  

2. Find ways to avoid the hot state - 99% is more difficult than 100%.

I remember watching a TV show about a man who was trying to remain committed to his wife.  He was overconfident that he could remain faithful but kept putting himself in horrible situations.  He would go out drinking with some coworkers and by the end of the evening be in an extremely hot state.  It would be difficult to make the right choice.  In the end he realized that the choice needed to be made earlier by avoiding the situation rather than trying to wait until it was hardest to make the right choice.

Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t advise recovering alcoholics to go into bars just to smell the alcohol.  They recommend avoiding the bar all together.  With every step closer to taking a drink they are moving from a cold state to a hot state.  The best way to remain sober is to avoid the situations where they will be in a hot state.

Jack Canfield talks about this in The Success Principles.  He explains that being 100% committed is easier than being 99% committed because you leave no room for a change in perspective when you are in a hot state.  100% commitment means avoiding the tough situations when possible and not moving closer and closer to slipping.  

3. Use a long term perspective in a cold state and a short term perspective in a hot state.

When you are setting goals, you want to think about the long term success.  But when you are in a hot state the long term outcome becomes less and less important.  Because our emotions tend to drive us towards short term gratification, we have to address those states in a short term mindset.

One example that I have used is to think about those hot moments as temporary.  Instead of saying that you will quit smoking forever while you are craving a cigarette, tell yourself that you only have to avoid smoking this time.  It will make it much easier to stick with it.  Trying to quit forever when you are craving a cigarette is almost impossible but if you commit to avoiding this one cigarette, then you will make it easier on yourself.  Over time you will start to build up momentum.  Then it will shift to the fact that you don’t want this time to be the one that knocks you back to smoking.

When I was younger I didn’t keep a lot of groceries in the house.  I didn’t like going to the grocery store and would only go when I had to.  This meant that when I was hungry I didn’t have many options.  What I realized was that I would tend to go to a fast food restaurant in this situation.  Because I was hungry now, I would be in a hot state and make the worst decision.  Once I started to make sure I had plenty of healthy items in the house, it was actually easier to make a quick sandwich than to get in my car and drive to a fast food restaurant.  The easiest, short-term fix actually became eating healthy!

Regardless of what goal you are trying to achieve make sure you prepare for the hot states when it is difficult to stick with your goal.  If you understand the factors at play and can plan ahead, you will be able to overcome the obstacles and reach your desired goal.