Author Archives: forjimstone

Stop Setting Goals That Don’t Make You Happy

If you want my thoughts on psychological mismatch theory, there’s still no replacement for this piece from 2012.

Stop Setting Goals That Don’t Make You Happy

If I could enforce a “required reading” list for this blog, that essay would be on it. As would the piece on mapping self-conscious thought: Self-Conscious Thought In The Modern World.


Will The Economy Always Create New Jobs For Humans?

Will machines proceed to take most of our jobs away from us over the next few decades?  Whenever I suggest this I tend to get two very specific counter-replies. Here’s the first:

Reply #1: If we automate burger flipping, we’ll still need people to fix the burger-flipping machines.

Reply to the reply: There’s still a large net loss of jobs. If a burger flipping machine replaces 5 human burger flippers, and a service tech can provide ongoing service for 20 machines, then there are 100 burger-flipping jobs lost for every job re-gained in the form of burger-flipping-machine-service-technicians.

Of course, we should also account for those who will manufacture the machines, sell and market the machines, and perform administrative tasks for the company that makes the machines. But the jobs lost will probably still outweigh the jobs gained by a healthy factor.

And that leads to the second counter-reply:

Reply #2: When new technology displaces workers in one area of the economy, the economy always adjusts and finds places for the displaced workers in other sectors (or new sectors) of the economy.

When farm seeding machines, harvesters, fertilizers, and pesticides came along, it reduced the agricultural sector of the economy from about 50% of workers down to about 2%. Where did all those workers go? Well, they found other jobs. They became factory workers, clerical workers, scientists, and eventually burger flippers. It might not have happened instantly, but the economy eventually created new jobs to replace the old ones.

So we’re good, right?  The economy always creates new jobs to replace old jobs.

Well, not so fast.

Reply to the reply: It all depends on gamma.  Gamma? Yes, gamma? What’s gamma? I just made it up.  Well, what is it? I’m glad you asked.

gamma = alpha/beta.

Ok, well then, what are alpha and beta?

Alpha is the rate at which the economy creates new human jobs.

Beta is the rate at which new technologies displace human jobs.

So gamma is the ratio of jobs being created to jobs being destroyed. If gamma > 1, then we’re probably in good shape (depending on how fast the labor pool itself is growing). If gamma < 1, then we’re probably in trouble.

And there are two reasons to think that gamma might turn permanently long-term negative, meaning the demand for human labor will more or less continue to fall steadily into the future (with some occasional reversals here and there).

  1. Our machines are getting closer and closer to being able to do anything we can do.
  2. The pace of innovation is increasing. (As computers have been getting more powerful and better connected, the number of things they are able to do has been growing exponentially.)

Those two facts put together suggest that we will eventually reach a point where a new human job can be replaced very soon after it is created. (Imagine that 6 months after a burger flipping machine is created, a burger-flipping-machine-repair-machine is created).

So, yes, the economy will continue to replace old jobs with new ones. But how many of those new jobs will be done by humans? Eventually, say we, almost none of them.

Do these two reasons hold water? That’s the question. Some would say that we are already seeing the effects of technology driving down the value of human labor. Wages have been stagnant for 40 years while productivity has doubled. And labor participation rates have fallen steeply over the last 10 years.

How much of that is due to automation (as opposed to, say, outsourcing, or reducing demand through trickle-down economics)? Who knows?

I don’t mean to settle the debate about machines taking our jobs here. I mean only to frame the debate by causing people to think about gamma, and to do away with two of the most common objections to the view that the machines are coming for our jobs.

Shaming the Unemployed

When there are 20 million people looking for work and 4 million job openings, it seems ignorant and cruel to blame individuals for remaining unemployed for a period of time.

You can likely tell a story of one person who worked their butt of pounding the pavement, willing to do “anything”, who found a job within a week that was well below their experience and training level, and paid a wage they would have trouble living on. You could tell that story and hold that person up as a role model to be followed.

But that’s the kind of story you would expect to hear from an oligarch looking for slave labor. And it does nothing to change the fact that there are still 20 million people trying to fill 4 million often-crummy slots.

Times like these require imagination and big picture thinking, not zoomed-in, nit-picking blame of individuals who are already down on their luck.

An Economic Parable

In a healthy forest . . .

. . . there are many large trees. There are even more shrubs growing between the trees. And there are even more small plants (ferns, tubers, grasses, flowers, moss, etc.) growing between the shrubs.The tallest trees consume many nutrients in the soil to fuel their growth, and they tend to crowd out or shade out many smaller plants and trees. But they also tend to go deep for their nutrients and shed some of their mass every year (in the form of leaves and needles), so smaller plants and smaller trees will have plenty of nutrients available at the surface.And when a big tree dies, it returns all of its mass to the soil to feed the next generation of plants.

That’s how a healthy forest works.

Imagine what would happen to the health of the forest if the tallest trees forgot where they came from, if they forgot that they too once relied on the surface nutrients provided by the plants that went before them.

Imagine what would happen if they suddenly said, “we’re tired of giving, giving, giving to all the takers at the bottom.” Imagine what would happen if they refused to shed their leaves and needles. Imagine what would happen if they refused to rot when they died.

Over time, I tell you truly, this lush forest would turn to desert.

The analogy, of course, is not perfect. But the imagery is vivid, and it drives home two points: 1) those who are currently wealthy have themselves benefited greatly from redistribution in the past, and 2) the system is more likely to be healthy when there is adequate flow at all scales.

More on modern trade-offs

More on hunter-gatherer vs modern life.

We’ve traded death by disease for antibiotics and vaccines (though due to population densities and animal husbandry we also contract more diseases). We’ve traded violent early deaths at an average age of 40 for relatively peaceful deaths by an average age of 75. We’ve traded an extreme fear of strangers for widespread cooperation with strangers. We’ve traded cold streams for hot showers.

But we’ve also traded ad lib hunting, gathering, tool-making, and camping for a regular 40 hour work week and yardwork. We’ve traded play for treadmills and stairmasters. We’ve traded sitting around a campfire socializing for staring at separate screens all night in separate rooms of a house. We’ve traded the joy of ever-increasing skill mastery for anxiety over skill obsolescence. We’ve traded sleep for more screen time. We’ve traded lean bodies free from diabetes for junk food addictions. We’ve traded long stretches of happiness punctuated by moments of sheer terror for lives filled with low-level chronic stress. We’ve traded the ability to be the best in the known world at something for You Tube, where we can watch someone doing anything we can do better than we could ever hope to do it.

Interesting trade-offs.

Envy and Merit

The difference between admiration and resentment is fairness.

If someone has a better life than we do, and they deserve it more than we do, we admire them. If someone has a better life than we do, and they don’t deserve it any more than we do, then we resent them (or we resent the system, or the fates).

We can tolerate inequality when it is earned. We can even tolerate it to some degree when it is produced by luck. But when it’s produced by a system that favors some over others for no obvious merit-based reason, then we begin to seethe with the corrosive kind of envy. And we begin to dream of toppling the system.

Capitalism 3.0

I take capitalism as a given, at least for the foreseeable future. Its roots lie in the same instinct that makes one child trade her corn dog for a second orange juice, and another child trade her orange juice for a second corn dog on the playground. Our complex economy emerged out of those instincts and has grown more powerful as our transportation and communication technologies and networks have grown. The current incarnation of capitalism produces much harm, but also much good. We should try to keep the good and eliminate the harm to the best of our ability.

Capitalism can serve us well if we:

  1. regulate industry intelligently,
  2. redistribute an adequate portion of the profits, and
  3. insulate our democratic institutions from the influence of big money.

We once did a better job of carrying out those three missions. And those who were privileged to do so enjoyed the benefits of a strong middle class and realistic dreams of upward mobility. At the very least we need to get back to where we were, but bring everybody along this time. We should also strive to make further improvements.

We should develop better forms of tax and transfer. We should aim for transfer programs, like a citizen’s dividend, free universal basic health care, and free universal higher education for those who qualify on merit. Such programs don’t require the have-nots to abase themselves before the haves. And we should aim for tax policies that tax the wealthiest and not the poorest. Progressive income, consumption, inheritance, and capital gains taxes are better than sales taxes, lotteries, and flat taxes (or even corporate taxes — more on that another time).

We should be more deliberate about separating the public-protecting and market-promoting functions of our government. And we should regulate better to ensure competition, protect the environment, and protect third parties from a greater range of harms.

With these changes (and a few others) we could have a robust capitalist system where people can still get filthy rich with hard work and great ideas. But they would have to return much of their wealth to the tribe when they’re done with it. More people would have a chance to be well off. Poverty (and its symptoms, such as drug abuse, suicides, and property crime) would be dramatically reduced. The economy would grow. Small businesses would thrive. The environment would improve. Average happiness would go up. Our people would be better prepared for the future. And the government would be more responsive to the will of the people.

God and Money

God and money are both proxies. As humans we have some fundamental needs. We need food, shelter, safety, and sex. And we also need the esteem of others, a sense of purpose, autonomy, a sense of being able to contribute to our tribes with skills and knowledge valued by the tribe, and so on.

If we are running low on several of these needs at once, we suffer.

If we are suffering, we can try to meet each of our needs separately. But that can be a long, tedious, and uncertain road. As a result, we find ourselves attracted to shortcuts — some one thing perhaps that can help us meet several of those needs at once.

One promising shortcut is money. If we have a lot of money, people will assume we must be good at something. They will want to associate with us. And we can tell people where to put it if they want to threaten our autonomy.

Another promising shortcut is a good relationship with God. If we can manage that, people in our group will have to respect us, our values will become aligned with the values of others within the group, which will increase our sense of autonomy (because their expectations will match our aspirations), people are more likely to share resources with us, and we’ll often enjoy the moral high ground.

Each of these shortcuts come with problems.

Money is typically more difficult to make than people believe. Those who have money tend to have no idea how lucky they have been, and wind up telling others it’s easier than it is. As a result people can chase it for many years or decades and still fall well short of their goals. Meanwhile their real needs go unmet.

Religious communities typically worship a God who requires individuals to suppress some needs in order to satisfy others. This can work out resonably well for an individual (with some frustration), as long as belief in God is maintained. But when the spell dissolves, the repressed needs can assert themselves with a vengeance. Religious communities are often fiercely tribal, too, creating an us vs them dynamic that pits believers against outsiders in many ways.

As individuals, it’s probably a good policy to try to meet our basic needs more directly, and less by proxy. If you are tending to your basic needs, and you also find a way to make and save a lot of money, great. It will be that much easier. But if making money proves elusive, at least you won’t go your whole life deferring satisfaction of your true needs.

As a society we should pursue policies that will allow people to better meet their needs directly, and not only by proxy. One of the problems of Capitalism as a religion (and not just as an economic model) is that it encourages us to defer our basic needs until the day which we have proved our worthiness by making a lot of money. At that point only can we have autonomy, demonstrated competence, and voice.

On average serving proxies without also tending to one’s basic needs more directly will turn out to be a raw deal.

Self-Conscious Thought in the Modern World


Almost to a person we are deeply self-conscious. And it’s been that way since our ancestors roamed the savanna.

We are self-conscious because we need to associate with other people in various ways, and we worry that, if they don’t like what we have to offer, they won’t want to associate with us the way we want to associate with them.

We want to know how much value we have in the eyes of others, and sometimes it’s not clear. So our minds fill with self-conscious questions like the following:

  • “Who am I?”
  • “Do I look OK?”
  • “Do I have anything to offer?”
  • “What do they think of me?”
  • “Do they think I’m stupid?”
  • “What kind of relationship do I have with this person?”
  • “What kind of relationship do I want to have?”
  • “Are they pulling back from me?”
  • “Do they want to break up with me?”
  • “Do they want to fire me?”
  • “What do they expect of me?”
  • “Did I disappoint them?”
  • “What do I expect of myself?”
  • “Why do I keep doing things, even though I told myself I wouldn’t do them?
  • “Can I meet their expectations?”
  • “Or am I just too dumb, or slow, or clumsy?”
  • “Do I want to meet their expectations?”
  • “Are we going to have to agree to disagree here?”
  • “What would that mean for the relationship?”
  • “How can I get them to see what I have to offer?”
  • “Am I smiling enough?”,
  • “Am I giving enough eye contact?”,
  • “Am I giving too much eye contact?”,
  • “Am I talking too much?”
  • “Am I being too self-conscious?”

This kind of self-conscious thinking is an essential part of managing our relationships with others. But sometimes it can torment us as well.  It can make us freeze up in the middle of a presentation or performance. It can make us come across as being too much “in our heads”. And it can lead to hours of brooding.

In our modern world our self-conscious thoughts torment us more than ever (you’ll see why shortly). But what if we understood all this internal chatter better? Could we control it? Could we make the chatter more productive? Could it even help us improve our relationships? I believe the answers are yes, yes, and yes. And I’m going to give you an opportunity to judge for yourself.

This essay offers you a map for understanding much of your self-conscious thinking. Once you understand how the map works, you can use it to interpret your inner dialogue and navigate your social world.

Four Portraits

The main idea is this: to navigate our social worlds we craft and compare four different portraits of ourselves in our minds. And much of our self-conscious thought is dedicated to fine-tuning these portraits and managing the differences between them. [1]

The four portraits correspond to these four questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What do I want to become?
  3. Who do others think I am?
  4. What do others expect me to become?

Let’s take a look at each of these portraits. And then we’ll consider the significance of the differences between them.

Portrait #1: First-Person Realistic 

The first portrait represents who you are right now from your own perspective. And this portrait is composed of many features, including:

  • whoamiyour likes and dislikes
  • your memories
  • your values, norms, and beliefs
  • your good habits
  • your bad habits
  • your skills and areas of expertise
  • your relationships and social roles
  • your physical traits
  • your hobbies
  • your accomplishments and failures
  • your possessions
  • your debts to others, and their debts to you

The list is open-ended, and can be a little different from person to person and culture to culture. But the above features form a pretty good common core.

In some ways we would expect this portrait to be fairly accurate. You are in a pretty good position to see who you are, because you get to see yourself in every situation, performing every role you perform as you go through your life. You also care who you are, so you will notice and puzzle over many little clues.

Yet you are not in a perfect position to know who you are. You will be blinded a bit by bias, inflating your good qualities and overlooking your bad qualities. And you can often learn new things about yourself from others, who will sometimes bring you down a notch, and will sometimes make you aware of good qualities you didn’t know you had.

You can also refine this view of yourself through observation. As you live your life and try new things you might notice that you’re not as disciplined as you thought you were, or that you actually like tomatoes now.

Portrait #2: First-Person Ideal

The second portrait is what you want to become.  It will share many features with your first-person realistic portrait, but it will be modified with:

  • better skills
  • more knowledge
  • a more impressive portfolio or resume
  • a better body
  • better habits
  • better social roles
  • more money
  • relationships with more interesting, or higher-status people
  • a better lifestyle

whatiwanttobecomeYour first-person-ideal portrait is more attractive than the first-person realistic one. And, if you play your cards right, you might someday come to resemble your ideal.[2]

Why do you do this? Why do you create an ideal image of yourself?

Well, you need things. I don’t know what you need in particular, but I can report that some humans have been known to need things like food, shelter, friends, lovers, children, money, esteem, status, achievement, competence, autonomy, adventure, and chocolate. [3]

You also have an imagination, and, however well you are satisfying your needs right now, you can probably imagine satisfying them even better . . . if only you had better skills, better habits, more money, and better relationships.

Your ideal portrait is your map to a better future.

But where do the specific ideals come from? Why does one person want ten million dollars, and another simply wants to be able to pay the bills?  Why does one person want to look like Marilyn Monroe, another like Audrey Hepburn? Why does one person want to be nicer, and another more ruthless?

Many of our ideals come from our parents, our teachers, our religious leaders, and the people on the telly. These people train us to hold certain ideals. They teach us that, in order to get people to like us, and in order to get good things in life, we need to be nicer, have self-control, keep a trim figure, get a good job, build a nest egg, or whatever.

Your ideal image will be further refined as you observe others who already have many of the things you want for your life. You’ll try to figure out which personal qualities led to their success, and you’ll aspire to create those qualities in yourself.

And sometimes you will craft your ideal image by experimenting with different kinds of self-presentation, noticing how others respond to them, and aspiring to do more of what gets good reactions and less of what gets bad reactions.

Portrait #3: Third-Person Realistic

In order to really drive ourselves crazy with self-conscious thoughts, it’s not enough to have the two first-person portraits of ourselves. We also need a couple third-person portraits.

whoothersthinkThe third-person-realistic portrait is our best guess about who others think we are.  And since not everyone has the same view of us, this portrait is more of a placeholder for many different third-person perspectives: “Who does she think I am?”, “Who does he think I am?”, “Who do people in general think I am?”, and so on.

Why do we care what others think of us? Well, we all need other people to fill various roles in our lives. We might hope a given person will serve as one of our friends, or as a doting child, or as a boss, or as a lover. And what we can reasonably hope for is at least partly determined by who they think we are.

How do we get the information we need in order to construct this portrait? We can ask the other person (or listen when they tell us). We can ask around (or listen when others tell us what that person thinks of us). We can observe how they act when they are around us, and make inferences from the emotional reactions they have to the things we say or do. And we can show them (or tell them) what we want them to think, and then look for signs that they believe us.

Portrait #4: Third-Person Ideal 

Finally, we have the third-person-ideal portrait. This portrait represents what other people want, need, or expect you to become (or remain, if you’re already awesome like that). Like the third-person-realistic portrait, this portrait stands in for many different third-person-perspectives.

othersexpectWhat others expect of you will depend on the kind of relationship you have with them. If you and they are political activists together, they will need you to have and maintain certain political commitments. If they are simply friendly acquaintances from the local coffee shop, they might need nothing from you but a polite smile and semi-interesting banter. If they are your spouse, they will likely need much more.

And part of the fun of being human comes from the high likelihood that the important people in your life will present you with conflicting expectations.

So how do we go about learning what a given person expects us to be or become?

We can start with the role we play (or want to play) in their lives. We will already have some sense of what the culture at large expects of people in that role. And we will probably assume at first that the other person will share these culturally typical expectations. For example, if we are (or aspire to be) their employee, we can guess right off the bat that they will expect us to be somewhat conscientious and agreeable, to have certain skills, and to use those skills to provide value to the firm.

But we will encounter some idiosyncratic expectations as well. The other person will have observed people playing these roles as they were growing up. As a result they might expect their romantic partners (for instance) to be like their father, their mother, or the protagonist from their favorite novel.

And their expectations will also be shaped by their personal experience with others who have played that role in their own lives. As a result they might have even lowered their expectations a bit.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no real shortcut for learning about these idiosyncratic expectations. We usually just stumble upon them as we interact with the other. They might tell us some of these expectations explicitly, and we might infer some of them based on how they react to things we do or say. And, while we will learn some of them before we enter the relationship, we will learn many only long after we are in it.

Managing the Gaps

Now that we’ve got an idea about what each portrait is, and how it is constructed, we can see a little more clearly what our self-conscious thoughts are doing. Much of that internal chatter comes from our attempts to refine the four portraits of ourselves, and manage the gaps between them.

To explore the gaps, we’ll make use of the following diagram:


The four self-portraits are represented by four circles. The two realistic portraits are on the left, and the two idealistic portraits are on the right. The two first-person portraits are on the bottom, and the two third-person portraits are on the top. The arrows represent gaps between adjacent portraits.[4]

In theory all four portraits could be exactly the same. In that case all four circles would collapse together into a single portrait, and there would be no gaps. But that never happens. For good or ill, there are always gaps.

Sometimes the gaps will be large. Sometimes they will be small. Sometimes we want gaps. And sometimes we wish they weren’t so big. Sometimes we feel like we have what it takes to close the gaps, and sometimes we worry that we don’t.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these gaps.

Gap #1: The Perception Gap 

Who we are is one thing. Who others think we are is another. These gaps in perception are inevitable. We know many more facts about ourselves than we share with others. And, even if it were possible to share every detail, it would likely bore most people to tears.

perceptiongapWith every person you know there is a perceptual gap regarding who you are.  And with different people, there will be different gaps. [6]

Sometimes we welcome gaps in perception. We value our privacy, and don’t want everyone to know everything about us. And we might have specific reasons to keep specific information from specific individuals. At times we might put on a brave face to inspire confidence in others. We might overstate our experience to pass a job interview. We might undersell our abilities to put another person at ease. Or we might “play dumb” to stay out of trouble.

Other times we want to bridge these gaps. We might disclose things to deepen a friendship. We might want someone to know our skills, so they’ll want to hire us. We might want to lighten the burden of maintaining a deception. We might want to get out in front of things before two acquaintances start comparing notes. We might want to be understood better, to keep people from jumping to the wrong conclusions. And we might just be tired of pretending all the time and want to let it all hang out for a change.

And sometimes we suspect others might know things about us we don’t know about ourselves. When we keep losing at poker, we wonder if we’re presenting a “tell”. If someone sticks with us after we’ve let them down, we might wonder what they see in us. If people at the office seem to be avoiding us, we might wonder if we stepped in something, if we are a topic of gossip, or if we are losing our job.

Gap #2: The Aspiration Gap 

Who we are is one thing. What we want to become is another. If we want to improve our prospects in life, we must maintain some sort of gap between these two portraits. And, at any given time we choose to look, there will be a gap of some size. [5]

aspiration_gapAt times we will widen the gap, daring to dream bigger dreams. Perhaps we are inspired by an expert in some field and want to become an expert in that field as well. Maybe we try a sport, discover that we love it, and find ourselves wanting to become better at it. Maybe we decide it’s finally time to quit smoking. Maybe we realize others are using and abusing us, and we want to be more self-sufficient so we can stand up for ourselves. Maybe we’re tired of living paycheck to paycheck and want to make more money. Maybe we feel like we’re in a rut and just want to shake things up a bit. Or maybe we find that we have accomplished so many of our old goals we need some new ones.

And sometimes we will try to shrink the gap. If we feel able we can move our actual self in the direction of our ideal self by engaging in intrinsically-motivated growth activities. We can develop new skills, learn new subjects, form new relationships, develop new habits, break bad habits, and create things more amazing than anything we’ve created before.

And, if we feel unable to grow into our ideal, we can move our ideal self closer to our actual self by scaling back our aspirations. If our goals are taking too long, we might choose less ambitious goals. If we repeatedly struggle to break a bad habit, we might choose to accept the habit as part of who we are. After our umpteenth round of yo-yo dieting we might finally accept our need for plus-sized clothing. And, at least once we hit 30, it’s time to admit to ourselves that we can’t be a doctor, AND a ballerina, AND a professional tennis player, AND a mother or father of six perfect children. There simply isn’t time for all that.

Gap #3: The Value Gap 

What we want to become is one thing. What others want us to become is often another.

value_gapYour dad wants you to take over the family farm, but you dream of becoming a Broadway star. Your friend expects you to be a conservative, but you’re a progressive.  Your partner wants you to spend more time at home, but you want to make more money.

Things are complicated further by the fact that we will have relationships with many different people who have conflicting expectations for us. Perhaps our spouse expects us to spend more time with the children, our boss expects us to spend more time at work, and we are hoping to find more time to write a novel.

In general these gaps are painful. They are a sign that the other person is at cross purposes with us. They are not good allies, at least for some purposes. And there might be some danger in having them occupy certain roles in our lives, It would be much better to fill these roles with people whose expectations are better aligned with our aspirations.

We will increase these gaps at times. If a person expects us to thwart our own animal interests too much, we will eventually push back. And if we want to shrink a gap with one person, we might have to widen a gap with another.

That said, in general, much of our self-conscious thought is dedicated to finding ways to reduce the impact of value gaps. The size of a value gap is one thing. The impact of a value gap is another. Impact is a function of both the size of the gap, and the importance of the relationship to our well-being. Large value gaps with strangers bother us very little, while small gaps with parents, children, and life partners can bother us greatly.

One way to reduce the impact of value gaps is to change our aspirations to match the expectations of important people in our lives. This is how we acquire many of our values in the first place. As children we internalize the values and expectations of the adults around us. By adulthood, though, most of us have more powerful personal aspirations, and must juggle the expectations of many different people. We can’t afford to be as straightforwardly accommodating.

Another way to reduce the impact of value gaps is to try to get the other person to change their expectations so that they match our own aspirations. It might be as simple as telling them, “Look, this is what I’m trying to accomplish, and I want you to be more supportive.” But sometimes taking such a direct approach risks losing the relationship. And, if we are not ready for that, we will have to try less direct approaches.

Yet another way to reduce the impact of value gaps in our lives is to demote people from important roles in our lives. This is easier said than done. We will be working against powerful attachment bonds and sometimes other constraints such as financial dependence or fear of retaliation.  It’s little wonder people can spend years in self-conscious deliberation before making such moves.

In society at large the pain of value gaps can produce tribalism. We get tired of having conflict with others and withdraw into isolated bubbles of like-minded folks. We then make up stories about why we are good and they are bad, and avoid the pain of actually engaging in dialogue with “those people”. Many of the people who dreamed that the internet would lead to a flourishing of open-minded dialogue, have been quite surprised to observe that, for the most part, it has simply given us new ways to preach to the choir.

Gap #4: The Expectation Gap 

Often there will be a gap between how another person perceives us and how they wish us to be if we are to play a certain role in their life. We see the coach shake her head after we commit the error. We score lower than expected on the midterm exam and wonder what the professor thinks. We try to flirt and the other person shows no interest. We show up twenty minutes late to a business meeting and are asked to explain why.

expectation_gapWhen we become aware of expectation gaps like these, we we can feel intense guilt or shame. And our minds will flood with thoughts of self-conscious concern.

We can try to bridge these gaps through acts of self-presentation, trying to convince them that we are closer to meeting their expectations than they might realize. We can try to get them to lower their expectations. We can work hard to meet their expectations. We can apologize for our shortcomings and promise to try to do better. And we can avoid these people in the future, so we don’t have to deal with their judgments.
Which course should we choose? Let the rumination begin.

Context and Caveats

Before venturing some practical advice, I want to make some observations about this map. If you’re pressed for time, you can safely skip this section.

First, each portrait and each gap can be affected by all the others. They form a dynamic system (but far from a closed system, as we’ll soon note). One of the main reasons we will allow a gap to grow between two portraits is to keep a different gap from growing.

For instance, a person who loses the family religion might hide that fact for many years, creating a large perception gap, because they are not ready to deal with the value gaps and the expectation gaps that are sure to arise. So they stay in the closet until either the demands of maintaining the perception gap become unbearable, or they have created new relationships in their lives that allow them to take risks with the old relationships. The same is true for all sorts of closets.

Second, this map covers just part of a larger territory of social concern. In addition to all of our self-conscious concerns, we also have other-conscious concerns. In fact, self-conscious concern depends fundamentally on the existence of other-conscious concern. Why worry what others think of us, or how they are judging us, if they are not thinking about us or judging us? We are all self-conscious, because we all judge, praise and expect things of others.

We can create an analogous “other conscious” map around these four questions: 1) Who do I think they are? 2) Who do they think they are? 3) What do they want to become? 4) What do I expect them to be or become? There will be analogous gaps between those four portraits. And there will even be some gaps to note between the four self-conscious portraits and the four other-conscious portraits. Rather than present that diagram here, I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader. [7]

Third, this map of self-conscious thought can provide context for some prominent psychological theories. You can recognize Freud’s ego, and superego here. The ego involves the bottom two circles and the arrow that connects them. The superego involves the top two circles and the arrow between them. The two side arrows represent the struggle between the ego and superego.[8]

You can also place the needs of Self-Determination Theory into the map. Autonomy is a matter of being free to work on closing the aspiration gap through self-motivated self-improvement and achievement without too much interference from others with whom we might have large value and expectation gaps. The need for competence comes from the need to narrow the aspiration and expectation gaps. And relatedness is pretty much the point of the whole thing.

We can also place the SDT endpoints of well-being, growth, and authenticity on the map. Authenticity is a matter of shrinking the perception gap. Well-being is a matter of not feeling too much strain from the various gaps overall, and growth happens when we successively widen and close the aspiration gap (through achievement and self-improvement). [9]

What Now?

I will likely write more about this map in the future, and discuss specific ways it can help you manage your inner life and your relationships. Knowing what’s going on in your own head can help you develop better self-talk habits, and can lead to more efficient self-improvement, values clarification, and image management efforts.  And knowing what’s going on in other people’s heads will allow you to have better relationships with them.  It can help you figure out what they need. It can help you resolve conflict more efficiently and effectively. And it can allow you to be more persuasive.

For now, I simply ask that you print out the map and use it for a week to understand your own thoughts, and the interactions that go on around you. I think you’ll be surprised how much of life fits neatly onto the map.

If you do this, post your observations here in the comments section. I’ll be interested to hear back from you to see how your experience with the map stacks up against my own.



[1] It’s natural to think of each portrait as a set image stored away somewhere special and brought out for the purpose of self-conscious thinking. That construal is fine for our purposes. In reality, these self-portraits are most likely constructed on the fly as we think. And we will probably activate only as much of a given portrait as we need for a given situation. This is known as the spreading activation theory of memory retrieval.

[2] In reality we might construct many first person ideals, depending on how far out in the future we are looking, which domain of our lives we are considering, and so on. For the most part it won’t hurt to pretend there is just one for now.

[3] For an overview of “human needs theory”, see my “What’s Missing?“.

[4] Theoretically there could be diagonal arrows as well, but those comparisons don’t seem to be as common, as they require jumping both from first person to third (or vice versa) and from actual to ideal (or vice versa). We can still get from any circle to any other, but comparing diagonals, requires two jumps instead of one. A case could be made that this is how we actually wander from one portrait to a diagonal portrait. We don’t tend to cross both distinctions at once, but first cross one, and then the other.

[5] The perception gap is one of Philippe Rochat’s main concerns in his book “Others in Mind”. Rochat makes a good case that, in spite of these gaps in perception, our own image of ourselves is substantially created from the way we think others perceive us. This is especially so early in life.

[6] For a look at how “boredom” and “anxiety” can cause us to grow and shrink the aspiration gap in repeated succession, take a look at my essay: How Can I Accelerate My Personal Growth?

[7] At one point while writing this essay I tried to arrange the four self-portraits and the four other-portraits in a cube. It proved to be “too cute” for reality 🙂  That said, such a cube might still make a useful toy in a therapist’s office.

[8] Though on this map we would want to keep in mind that for Freud the “ego-ideal” is the superego and not our first-person-ideal portrait.  See Freud’s: The Ego and the Id.

[9] My favorite article discussing Self-Determination theory is still Deci and Ryan’s “The What And Why of Goal Pursuits”.  For a more accessible taste, see my: “Stop Setting Goals that Don’t Make You Happy.